PITTSBURGH — When a team wins the Stanley Cup there is always an expectation that it should be able to come back the next season and contend for it once again. So it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with an All-Star cast of forwards led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, are back in the Stanley Cup Final for a second year in a row (and for the fourth time in 11 years) thanks to their thrilling 3-2, double overtime Game 7 win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.
What is a shock is how they managed to do it.
Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done.
Keep in mind the NHL has not had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. It has only had two repeat champions since 1990 (the Red Wings, and the 1991 and 1992 Penguins). Only six teams have even made it to the Finals in back-to-back years. It is a grueling task that requires not only a talented, well-coached team that is playing well at the right time of year, but also a lot of luck.
And luck is not just limited to puck luck or getting the right bounces. It is also about having the right matchups and having the right players healthy all at the same time.
All of that seemed to be working against the Penguins this postseason in what has been a run that has, in a lot of ways, defied the odds. Not only did they have to get through two of the top-three teams in the NHL this season in the first two rounds, but they had to do it with an injury list that seemed to grow by the day, leaving them with what was at times an undermanned defense.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talked extensively about their journey so far after their Game 7 win on Thursday night.
“It’s been hard. It’s been a really hard playoffs, and I give this group of players so much credit,” Said Sullivan. “They find ways to win, and we’re not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I’ve been around.”
“I think it starts with the leadership group we have. We’ve got a group of veteran players. I think they have a certain perspective that they understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn’t come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity. It’s a great opportunity. And our veteran guys know it. They’ve been around the game a long time, and they understand when they have something special, and we believe we have that with the chemistry of this team. We did it last year, and we’re finding ways to do it again this year. But it’s hard to win. This is the hardest trophy in sports, in my mind. It’s a war of attrition. And I don’t think any team has endured more injuries than this group of players has endured, and we continue to find ways to win.”
The injury situation has been especially brutal.
After entering the playoffs without their best defenseman (Kris Letang), forcing the team into a defense-by-committee approach that is almost unheard of for teams going this deep into the playoffs, they have also had to spend time without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley for stretches.
All of that, combined with the daunting path through two of the NHL’s best teams, resulted in a style of play that has not been quite as consistently impressive as their run a year ago.
Until Game 4 of their series against the Senators the Penguins had been dominated on the shot chart and were bleeding chances against, spending the entire postseason to that point defending and relying heavily on the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to get through.
“I mean, just the competition,” said Chris Kunitz, the Game 7 hero on Thursday night when asked about the different challenges they have faced this year.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s tough to overcome them, or sustain maybe that pressure that we had last year. It felt like we were in more of a flow. This year it’s been back and forth. It’s been tough,” he continued. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night. We haven’t dominated the play that maybe we wanted to. Maybe we’ve done a better job these last couple of games. But it’s something we’re going to have to get better at playing a 60-minute game if we’re going to have a chance to beat Nashville.”
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Larry Robinson will not be back with the San Jose Sharks next season.
A team spokesman confirmed Thursday that Robinson’s contract expires in the summer and that he will not return. Robinson had been with the Sharks for the five seasons, first as an associate coach for two years and then as director of player development the past three.
The Hall of Fame defenseman joined the Sharks in 2012 after coaching the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. He won the Stanley Cup as New Jersey’s head coach in 2000.
Robinson won the Cup six times as a player with the Montreal Canadiens. After mixed results as a head coach, he was considered one of the top assistants in the NHL. He will be 66 next week.
The Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Final last season.
–Adidas will become the official outfitter of the NHL in 2017-18, which means that some teams will make some tweaks to their current jersey. 12 teams are reportedly going to make some type of alteration to their uniform. The Bruins, Sabres, Flames, Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Stars, Oilers, Panthers, Wild, Predators, Devils and Senators are the teams making changes. (Sportsnet)
–NBA hall-of-famer Charles Barkley was working the Cavaliers-Celtics game in Boston last night, but even he admitted that he’d rather be watching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. (The Score)
–The Anaheim Ducks went on a nice run to the third round of the playoffs, but for them to take another step forward, they’ll need someone other than Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler to make more of an impact, per beat reporter Eric Stephens. (OC Register)
–Not many Oilers fans were happy with the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson swap, but Larsson’s play this season some fans forget about Hall, according to the Edmonton Journal’s Bruce McCurdy. He writes: “One surprise was how well the Oilers scored with Larsson on the ice, the best of any defenceman on the team and behind only the first line forwards. That went a long way to explaining his splendid +21 on the season, this after his +15 the previous campaign with a weak Devils club was largely achieved through stingy defensive outcomes.” (Edmonton Journal)
—Chris Kunitz scored two goals, including the game-winning goal in double overtime to send the Pens to their second straight Stanley Cup Final. Check out the highlights from Game 7 by clicking the video at the top of the page.
–It’s been a tough year for Craig Anderson and his wife Nicholle, but she Tweeted a nice message after the Senators dropped Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final:
PITTSBURGH — Chris Kunitz has put together an impressive and often times overlooked resume during his 13 years in the NHL. He has been a top-line player on three Stanley Cup winning teams, he has an Olympic Gold Medal, and before Thursday’s Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators had scored 275 goals (regular season and playoffs) in the NHL.
By any objective measure that is a fantastic career.
During the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime win on Thursday to send them back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row, he played what was perhaps the biggest — and best — game of his career.
It could not have come at a better time for the Penguins.
Or at a more unexpected one.
Kunitz played a role in all three Penguins’ goals, scoring two of them, including the overtime winner, and providing the key screen on Justin Schultz‘s third period power play goal. As if that was not enough, he also recorded an assist on that Schultz goal.
He was, to say the least, a force and the single biggest contributor in the Penguins’ win. Even if he downplayed his overtime winner as simply being the result of a little bit of luck.
“I was just trying to get into a soft spot,” said Kunitz. “The puck fluttered off my stick a little, I don’t know if it touched [Jean-Gabriel Pageau] or kept going right in, but it looked like there was a good screen on the goalie, it looked like he maybe fell down, it just found its way into the net. Sometimes you just get lucky when you put one on net.”
Lucky or not, Kunitz was the unexpected hero in Game 7 and it came on a night where he seemed to rediscover his game.
Kunitz playing such an essential role in a big playoff win wouldn’t have been that big of a shock four or five years ago.
He has been a core player since arriving in Pittsburgh during the 2008-09 season and spent years skating on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby. That presence on Crosby’s wing almost did more to hurt his reputation because there was always that belief he was simply a product of skating alongside the best player in the world. But he has always been more than that. He has been a legitimately good top-six winger that had also found success even when away from Crosby.
But on Thursday it was a taste of the old days with Crosby setting up the overtime winner.
“[Sheary] did a really good job bringing it up the wall and walking the blue like, and I think Sid was coming right off the bench,” said Kunitz. “When he drives it deep everyone gets scared and you can find that soft area because obviously Sid has great vision, and he put it right there. I just found a way to put it on net and got lucky.”
What makes his performance such a stunner this season, and in this game, is that it came at a time when his best days were clearly in the past and he had gone from being a top-line, core player, to being more of a bottom-six role player.
At the age of 37 that had to be expected. He was still able to do enough to be a useful contributor, but the consistent impact on the scoresheet wasn’t always there. Entering Game 7 on Thursday night he had yet to score a goal and had recorded just a pair of assists in his first 13 playoff games. Along with that postseason scoring drought he only scored nine goals during the regular season and had not found the back of the net since Feb. 16, a stretch of 78 days.
Then there he is playing the role of hero in what was, to this point, the Penguins’ biggest game of the season.
“He played his best game of the playoffs when it matters the most,” said Penguins forward Carl Hagelin. “That’s the type of guy he is and that’s the reason he has three Stanley Cup rings already. He’s just one of those guys you love having on your team.”
This is pretty much what Game 7’s in the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about. Anything can happen when a series and a season all comes down to one game.
It only takes one shot, one bounce, one play, one call or one huge performance from an unexpected player to totally re-write history.
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago it was Bryan Rust, representing the next wave and younger generation of the Penguins, playing the role of hero with his two goal-game.
This year, it was one of their long-time core players rediscovering his past glory for one night.