An odd goal by Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist allowed the Penguins to nip past the Predators last night and clinch their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Three things immediately stand out from their victory.
1) Repeat champions are rare in hockey, and the Penguins are the first in the salary cap era
In contrast to the NBA, the NHL does not lack parity. After all, Nashville, the postseason’s de facto 16 seed, just coasted through the West and nearly won the Cup. And in the past fifteen years, nearly two-third’s of the league’s franchises have played in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Given how even the competition is in the NHL, as well as how grueling its nearly two-month long postseason can be, Pittsburgh’s title is all the more impressive. Plus, not only are they the first to repeat in the salary cap era (since 2005-06), but they’re the first of the 21st century. Truly remarkable.
2) They won without Kris Letang, their best defenseman
On the prediction front, chalk Pittsburgh’s win as an L for me. I said before the playoffs that I didn’t think the Penguins could go deep without Kris Letang, who had season-ending neck surgery on April 13th. Could you blame me, though? Nearly every Stanley Cup finalist in recent memory has had at least one elite defensemen. Chicago: Duncan Keith. Los Angeles: Drew Doughty. Tampa Bay: Victor Hedman. Boston: Zdeno Chara.
Even though he’s never won a Norris Trophy, Letang is undoubtedly in this same category. SI, for instance, had him ranked as the fourth best lead defensemen entering this season. Plus, he was coming off the most impactful year of his career, as he set career high’s in goals, points, and ice-time. And in last year’s postseason, he was arguably as valuable as Sidney Crosby, considering that Letang anchored a Pittsburgh defense that had a rookie, Matt Murray, in net. I just didn’t see how they could succeed without him this spring.
But the fact that the Penguins were able to win without Letang is not an indictment of their top defenseman. Rather, it just speaks to the depth of this Pittsburgh team.
3) And they also won while relying on two goalies
So the Penguins bucked two trends by a) repeating in an era where repeating is practically unheard of and b) hoisting the Cup without their top defenseman. They also pulled off a third feat: winning without a stable goaltender.
Matt Murray, their netminder for last year’s Cup run, was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s goalie entering the postseason, until he suffered an injury warming up before Game 1 of their quarterfinal against Columbus. Enter Marc-Andre Fleury, a Stanley Cup champion himself, who took advantage of this opportunity and led the Penguins past the Blue Jackets and the President Trophy-winning Capitals. Yet despite standing on his head in Pittsburgh’s Game 7 win over Washington, Fleury was shaky in their two losses to Ottawa in the Conference Finals, which prompted Mike Sullivan to turn back to Murray.
Can you remember the last team to win a Cup after changing goalies so late in the postseason? I couldn’t. So I researched Stanley Cup champions over the past twenty so odd years…and the closest example I could find was when Carolina subbed in backup goalie Cam Ward during the ’06 playoffs and rode him to the Cup. But even that change was done mid-way through the first round.
By succeeding with two goalies while overcoming the absence of their top defenseman, Pittsburgh’s repeat–a challenge unto itself given that it’s been nearly twenty years since the Red Wings last won two straight–is even more impressive.
Let’s Talk Legacies…and the Future
With this win, the Penguins have now overtaken the Blackhawks as the NHL’s premier organization. Credit Chicago for winning three titles in six years, but it’s arguably more impressive to win back-to-back titles as Pittsburgh has done. And given how the Blackhawks have been bounced in the first round each of the past two years (which includes getting swept by Nashville this past April), the Penguins have now done enough to snatch the “best organization in the NHL” belt away from Chicago.
On an individual-level, Sidney Crosby, unsurprisingly, was the big winner. He joined Patrick Roy, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzyky, Bernie Parent, and Bobby Orr as the only players to win multiple Conn Smythe awards. The question now becomes where he ranks among the greatest–and by greatest, I mean the greatest.
A recent USA Today ranking of the top 25 players in NHL history had him ranked 14th, noting that he had two Stanley Cups, two Hart trophies, two scoring titles, a Conn Smythe, two Olympic golds and a World Cup of Hockey MVP. Wow, that’s a lot. Yet his terrific resume needs to be revised, because in the last calendar year, Crosby has added another Stanley Cup, another Conn Smythe, and another goal-scoring title. Judging on accomplishments alone, Crosby is already not too far behind the likes of Mark Messier, Orr, and Lemieux, even though he still has a ways to go before catching Gretzky. Given that he still hasn’t turned 30, though, Crosby is a lock to at least finish as one of the ten greatest players of all-time, if he isn’t in that group already.
But how about some of the other individuals who furthered their legacies? Evgeni Malkin, one of my personal favorites playing today, led the playoffs in scoring for the second time in his career. With three Cups, along with a Hart and a Conn Smythe, Malkin is rising up the ranks of all-timers as fast as Crosby. How about Matt Murray? He’s now been on the ice for two Stanley Cup titles, even though he still technically just wrapped up his rookie season! Also, don’t lose sight of how he posted back-to-back shutouts in the series’ final two games, either. And then there’s Mike Sullivan. A year and a half ago, he was merely a well-traveled assistant with only two years of head coaching experience. Now he’s probably going to the Hall of Fame, as he became the first American-born head coach with multiple Stanley Cup wins. Talk about a turn of events.
I suppose it’s common to assume that championship winning teams naturally have bright futures ahead of them, at least in the short-term. But with Pittsburgh, there’s no reason to think that they won’t be raising another banner or two while their core of Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel is in tact. After all, those three together are signed until 2021-22, and they’re all no older than 30. Same goes for Letang, though he does have some injury concerns. Moreover, a few of their key supporting players (i.e. Jake Guentzel, who led the Pens in goals this postseason) are signed for the next year or two for under $1 million per year. Perhaps most encouraging, though, is that they have two championship-caliber goalies in Murray and Fleury, and the former is still just 23 years old and signed until 2020-21.
Pittsburgh’s third Cup run in the Crosby/Malkin era, and their fifth overall, taught us that the Penguins are capable of defying even the most challenging expectations. Yet when you have the undisputed greatest player of the 21st century, coupled with other Hall of Fame-caliber players, it’s clear that rules don’t apply to a team this stellar.
But surely a three-peat is impossible…right?
Hornqvist photo courtesy of SI; Crosby photo courtesy of AP