Something in the DNA of these Pittsburgh Penguins just would not permit them to do anything easily, which probably made the end result all the more satisfying. In a wild celebration, on enemy ice, the Penguins won the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, clinching the best-of-seven series with a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks Sunday night.
It was a nail biter again, a fight to the finish, the Penguins squandering chance after early chance to put away the pesky Sharks. Kris Letang scored the winner 7:46 into the second period and from there, the Penguins – a team known for its high-octane offence – proved to be their usual stingy selves defensively, limiting the Sharks to a single shot for most of the final period, when San Jose was theoretically pressing for the tying goal.
Same as they were three nights ago at home, Pittsburgh was the demonstrably better team, but it wasn't until Patric Hornqvist scored into the empty net that the Penguins could exhale and celebrate the second championship of the Sidney Crosby era. Crosby, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player, noted how far the Penguins came after a brutal start that ultimately cost coach Mike Johnston his job.
"When you have so much turnover the last couple years like we had, it's not easy to throw a bunch of guys together and develop that chemistry, that trust," said Crosby. "It doesn't happen overnight."
No, it took time. On Christmas Day, the Penguins had exactly 35 points from 33 games, good for 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. They were eight points back of the New York Islanders, who held the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, and five back of the Ottawa Senators, who were in the final wild card position.
But from Dec. 12, when Mike Sullivan took over from Johnson as coach, they were 33-16-5 and made the playoffs by a comfortable margin. In the postseason, they dominated. The Sharks went down in six games and were probably lucky to get it that far. Two rounds earlier, the Penguins took out the NHL's top regular-season team, the Washington Capitals, in a decisive manner.
Curiously, when the Penguins last won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Dan Bylsma was also a mid-season coaching replacement, guiding the team to an 18-3-4 regular-season record before going on their championship run.
Unlike the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, teams that won five of the previous six Stanley Cup using traditional draft-and-develop blueprints, the Penguins won with a lineup that had been dramatically remade since opening night.
In all, seven players who were in the Pittsburgh line-up for a 3-0 road loss to the Dallas Stars to open the season – that would be David Perron, Rob Scuderi, Beau Bennett, Bobby Farnham, Daniel Sprong, Sergei Plotnikov and back-up goalie Jeff Zatkoff – were no longer in uniform when the Penguins celebrated their Stanley Cup victory. What's more, only seven players remained from opening night two years ago, a turnover of almost two thirds of the roster in 21 months. Chicago and L.A. made the odd tweak here or there, mostly designed to deal with salary-cap considerations, but Pittsburgh?
For the past two years, it's been a completely by the seat-of-their-pants do-over by general manager Jim Rutherford.
In the salary-cap era, any team that moves out fully one third of its roster in-season usually does so out of desperation – and it rarely pays such immediate dividends.
Their goalie, Matt Murray, didn't appear in an NHL game until mid-December, a fifth-round choice in the 2012 entry draft, who became the starter in the final month, after Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion. Murray was part of a season-long air lift from the minors that also put three others who played regularly in the final - Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl – on the major-league roster.
Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley were reclamation projects, neither of whom played prominent roles for either the Edmonton Oilers or the Chicago Blackhawks, before being added for depth purposes. Up front, Carl Hagelin joined mid-season from the Ducks, where he'd been a poor fit. Hagelin's regular linemates were Phil Kessel (practically run out of Toronto in last summer's player purge) and Nick Bonino, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks as a cheaper alternative to the player he was traded for, Brandon Sutter.
Kessel was excellent, leading the Penguins in post-season scoring and proving that yes, you could win a championship with Phil the Thrill playing a prominent role.
But the linchpins were the holdovers from the last championship squad – Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang, who played critical minutes on the depleted, no-name Penguins blue line.
"I have a greater appreciation this time around," acknowledged Crosby. "At a young age, going back-to-back like we did, you just think it's going to be an annual thing. With the core we have, you think everyone's going to stay together; the team's not going to change. But it does. That's the reality of playing hockey. There is turnover, things change, guys move on, different coaches.
"So many different things need to happen – and you need to have some luck along the way. I think you just appreciate it, you appreciate how hard it is to win it, and you just kind of enjoy the feeling when you do."
After receiving the Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman, Crosby skated with it for a moment and then handed it off to Daley, who in turn passed it over to Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's long-time line-mate, who retired this season because of an ongoing issue with blood clots. Daley didn't play in the final because of a broken left ankle, but he put on his uniform and skates to join the Penguins' on-ice celebration.
Afterward, Crosby explained he gave the Cup to Daley first in part because of a conversation the two had had a few days earlier.
"He had told me he went to see his mom between series; she wasn't doing well; and she wanted to see him with the Cup, that it was important to her," said Crosby. "I think that stuck with me after he told me that. We were motivated to get it for him, even though he had to watch.
"Duper, obviously what he's been through the last couple years, the type of teammate he's been, just the way he's approached everything. I think he would have loved to have been playing. This is as good as we could have done without him playing. That was special."
A year ago, Sullivan was working in player development for the Chicago Blackhawks, primarily responsible for the development of Chicago's forward prospects. Once the playoffs started, Sullivan did some pro scouting during the Blackhawks' run to the championship and ultimately received a Stanley Cup ring for his efforts.
Now, he is back in the winner's circle, albeit in a far more prominent role, added to the Penguins organization after the previous minor-league coach, John Hynes, received an NHL opportunity to coach the New Jersey Devils.
"The one thing we tried to do was create and establish an identity," said Sullivan. "I thought as the head coach, it was my responsibility to direct that. When we looked at the type of players we have, our core guys, we think we've got players that want to play fast. They can all really skate - Crosby and Malkin, Kessel and Letang, Hagelin we acquired down the stretch.
"We tried to implement a game plan that allowed them to play to their strengths … and our players bought in. We felt if we were a team that could play fast in every aspect of the game that could be our competitive advantage on some of our opponents."
The Sharks will head into the off-season wondering how their scoring leaders from the first three rounds, mostly Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, could so completely run out of gas in the final.
"I thought our guys emptied the tank, gave us everything they possibly could," 'said Sharks' coach Peter DeBoer, who indicated Pavelski and others were playing the last few games with injuries. "They played their game for much longer stretches than we were able to. They dictated the play. They started quicker than us. That's the reason they're holding the Cup. We weren't as good as them during this two-week period."
For a few years there, everything that could go wrong in Pittsburgh did. This year, all that bad karma was exorcised in one fell, mighty, unexpected swoop. Kessel proved he could win. Crosby proved he could win again. And a team that looked as if it had gone stale suddenly looked full of life when it mattered most.