These Pittsburgh Penguins were never supposed to win the Stanley Cup. They were defending a championship from last year, and that’s hard to begin with. Their best defenseman by a million miles, Kris Letang, played in half of the team’s regular season games and zero of its playoff games. They controlled 46.5 percent of the even-strength shot attempts during their run, far fewer than any Cup champion had ever controlled until this year.
The Pens were probably not hockey’s best team this year. That was the Capitals, winners of the President’s Trophy and losers to Pittsburgh in a Game 7 on their own ice in the second round. The Pens were not the hottest team entering the Final. That was Nashville, a No. 8 seed that tore through the Western Conference like a P.K. Subban slap shot through a net made of one-ply toilet paper. The Penguins were underdogs to whatever extent it’s possible for champions to be underdogs. And they won again, clinching the Cup with back-to-back shutouts in Games 5 and 6 against Nashville.
Analytically, there’s no reason to overthink this. The Penguins won because their 23-year-old goaltender, Matt Murray, stoned the Predators in four of six games — Penguin wins, all of them, and you only need four wins to win the Stanley Cup Final. Murray didn’t give up a goal in the last 120 minutes and change of the series, except for the one that got waved off thanks to a fortuitous officiating mistake.
Murray’s Cup Final save percentage was an excellent .931, with 12 goals allowed on 173 shots. He and I were both born in 1994. He has now backstopped two Stanley Cup winners as a technical rookie, and I have watched him do it while eating spaghetti both times. This year, his counterpart was Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, whose save percentage was an unpalatable .888 — 14 goals on 125 shots. The Penguins won this series because Murray stopped pucks and Rinne did not. It wasn’t about heart or grit, or whatever.
Murray was the Penguins’ nominal No. 1 goaltender for most of the season. He didn’t play in the first two rounds of the playoffs, because he got hurt in warmups of Game 1 of the first round against Columbus. Marc-Andre Fleury, the longtime starter who had struggled in every playoff since the team’s 2009 Cup win, replaced him and won two series in which the Pens had been generally out-skated. Fleury finished the playoffs with a .924 save percentage in 15 games, a few ticks down from Murray’s .937 in 11. Both are elite figures. You can’t overstate how key goaltending was.
At any rate, these Penguins mounted an astonishing run.
The goaltending made it all possible. A few more pucks go into Pittsburgh’s net, or even just one more puck in the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa, and none of this happens. But that shouldn’t minimize what the Penguins did to get back to the mountaintop.
The Penguins have exactly one defenseman who scares anyone. That is Letang, and news broke on April 5 that he wouldn’t participate in the playoff run and needed surgery for a herniated disc in his neck. For every other team in the history of the NHL, that probably would’ve been a death knell. Every Cup winner has a No. 1 defenseman, and the Penguins didn’t even have a No. 2. They played with an entire defensive corps that wasn’t capable of retrieving a hockey puck and moving it up ice.
Sidney Crosby — the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the captain, and the greatest player in the world — sustained a concussion in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Capitals. He missed one game, then returned and looked lousy for a few more. He was brilliant in Game 7 of that series, though, and then he was brilliant in both series afterward. It is Crosby who defines the Penguins, and it was Crosby whose Game 5 performance against Nashville turned the tide of a Predators-dominated series.
The Pens’ stars showed up, just like they always do.
Here’s the one thing about this run that wasn’t unexpected: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were superstars. Crosby and Malkin have been the best hockey players in the universe since around 2006, and the Penguins have been blessed with both of them together for all of that time. They have now delivered the team to three of its five Stanley Cups in a 50-year history: in 2009, last year, and this year. Malkin won the Smythe in their first Cup; Crosby has won the last two, although Malkin had an equal case this spring. Crosby and Malkin are Nos. 1 and 2 in playoff scoring since the league’s 2005 lockout, and they were world-beaters again this year.
They had help, just like they did a year ago. Midseason call-up Jake Guentzel pulled 13 playoff goals out of his helmet, one off the league’s rookie record. Bryan Rust ran his career playoff goal total to 13 in 46 games, against 20 in 112 regular season contests. Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen are a combined 87 years old, and together they scored 20 playoff points. Kunitz, who’d been arguably the worst player on the team all season, had two goals, including an overtime winner, in the Game 7 against Ottawa.
Now, the Penguins are the team of this era.
They’ve matched the Blackhawks with three post-lockout Stanley Cups, and they’ve become the first team to repeat in that span. They have been the most successful team in the league since that lockout, which isn’t a surprise because they’ve had its two greatest players centering their first and second lines the whole time.
91 playoff wins. Three Stanley Cups. Back-to-back. pic.twitter.com/UiAwIgrwDU— coconut&mojito mike (@MikeDarnay) June 12, 2017
They’ve also produced three Hart Trophy winners in that time, as well as the league scoring champion four times. (All of these are Crosby and Malkin.) Add their 536 regular season wins since the lockout, second behind the Sharks franchise they beat for the Cup in 2016, and the picture crystalizes. More than any other team, the Penguins have been the dominant force of the post-lockout NHL.
The Penguins have been better than they were this year. But they’re at the height of their greatness right now. It’s a height few organizations will ever reach again.