When Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby blocked a shot from San Jose Sharks defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and then pushed the puck to linemate Patric Hornqvist for an empty-net goal on Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched their fourth Stanley Cup in 25 years.
Eight months ago, Pittsburgh began the season with three straight losses. Six months ago, they replaced head coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan after falling to fifth place in the Metropolitan Division with a 15-10-3 record. Meanwhile, the Penguins dealt with the retirement of heart-and-soul player Pascal Dupuis due to a blood-clot condition and worked to find chemistry in a lineup that would eventually feature 11 new faces from last year’s team that fizzled out of the playoffs in the first round.
Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino were the big off-season acquisitions. Matt Cullen, 39, was going to retire, but was persuaded to play one more season. Eric Fehr was added for depth. Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz joined during the season through trades. Sullivan, who began the season coaching the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, had influence in the promotion of rookies Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhacki and goalie Matt Murray.
But even after Sullivan was promoted, the Penguins took a month to hit their stride. After that, nothing seemed to unnerve them. Not the head injury to Marc-Andre Fleury that thrust the 22-year-old Murray into the playoff pressure cooker, and not the season-ending ankle injury to Daley in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Daley’s mother, Trudy, is battling cancer.
“He had told me that he went to see his mom in between series and stuff, she wasn’t doing well, she wanted to see him with the Cup,” Crosby explained. “That was important to her. I think that kind of stuck with me after he told me that. We were motivated to get it for him, even though he had to watch.”
Dupuis, who suited up for the on-ice celebration, was next on Crosby’s list, followed by Fleury — a hero of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup win who saw only 80 minutes of action in this year’s playoffs as Murray took over his job.
“[Dupuis], obviously what he’s been through the last couple years, the type of teammate he’s been, the way he’s approached everything, I think he would have loved to have been playing,” Crosby said. “This is as good as we could have done without him playing. That was special.
“All three guys, it’s about your team. Those guys showed it the best way you can.”
This really was a team effort — from Jim Rutherford, who became the first general manager in the expansion era to win Stanley Cups with two different teams, all the way down to Schultz, who was forced into action with Daley’s injury.
The 28-year-old Crosby exhibited a two-way game, much like Detroit’s Steve Yzerman did later in his career. The Penguins blocked shots, forechecked and backchecked. They moved the puck with ease out of their own end and made it difficult for the Sharks to get anything started from their side of the rink. The Penguins were able to use their speed, while the Sharks were slowed.
“In the playoffs, it’s tight,” No. 87 said. “There’s not a lot of chances to be had. When there isn’t, you can’t be one-dimensional. You have to make sure you’re contributing other ways. Whether that’s creating momentum, drawing penalties, winning faceoffs… everything that it takes, all those little details go a long way.”