Peter Laviolette’s crew might have been making its first championship appearance, but it was the Pittsburgh Penguins who came out on top, scoring a pair of last-minute goals to best a rebounding Pekka Rinne and become the first repeat title winners in nearly two decades.
And his efforts, to no surprise, are among the top three reasons the Penguins repeated as champs:
1. Matt Murray’s incredible poise in the net
Marc-Andre Fleury deserves a hat tip for shutting out a few opponents on the Pens’ trip through the playoffs. But Murray, technically still a rookie even though he backstopped Pittsburgh to a title last spring, did the heavy lifting when it mattered most during the Final.
He wasn’t squaring off with the world’s most dangerous offense (ahem, that would be his own team’s), and Nashville was without a string of injured forwards throughout the title series. Murray, however, still stood tall above the rest when the chips were down, overshadowing back-to-back losses in Music City with a pair of his own shutouts and long stretches where he just about single-handedly kept Pittsburgh afloat.
In Game 1, he limited Nashville enough to help the Pens overcome a nearly two-period run in which they went without a single shot on goal. His timely saves bailed out Pittsburgh on plenty of other occasions. And even on his worst nights, like the back-to-back losses in Games 3-4 of the Final, he never seemed like the defending champs’ biggest concern.
2. The clutch-time finesse of superstar centers
Crosby took home postseason MVP honors for a reason. And it was largely thanks to No. 87’s unsurprising, albeit prominent, work from the center of the ice that the Pens offense showcased enough of its firepower to claim another title in six games.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the Pens played their best when Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, what with their jump-starting contributions during playoff blowouts and 55 combined points during the course of the postseason, got into a rhythm. The dynamic duo, after all, has been a driving force of Pittsburgh’s success for so long.
But in a postseason that featured a historic scoring spree from youngster Jake Guentzel and saw the Pens, sans Kris Letang, overcome long series and banged-up depth with help from plenty of other big-play scorers, Crosby and Malkin still reigned supreme. They went quiet a few times. But when they were on, the Penguins most certainly were, too.
If ever a case were to be made for a multi-player Conn Smythe winner, it would be for the Pens’ golden pairing of Crosby and Malkin.
3. Cool and collected experience
It’s as close to a cliche answer as you’re going to get, but how can the Pens’ resiliency, their postseason history and their “it” factor as a championship contender be ignored on the heels of a third Pittsburgh title in the Crosby era?
This group faced some threats during the playoffs. The Washington Capitals severely underwhelmed even considering their shaky postseason reputation, yet they still gave the Pens a late push. The Ottawa Senators went heavy on the scrappy tactics to wear down and stretch out the Pens. And the Predators, with a home-ice stint as thrilling as the story behind their energetic small-market fan base, were no pushovers, either.
In the end, though? Pittsburgh never played scared. Pittsburgh could never be counted out. And Pittsburgh rallied exactly when it needed to. Over and over again.
Of course, a lot of those things can be attributed to Murray’s goaltending and some standout starts from Crosby and Malkin. But it truly takes a whole team to claim the Stanley Cup, and the Pens proved that. Opportunistic at the right times, physical when they needed to be and rarely undone by the toll of depth concerns, they skated exactly like a team that had just won a title the season before — and one that certainly wanted to win one more.