Cam Tucker

Kessel’s ‘years in this league haven’t been easy, but now he’s got his name on the Cup’

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We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the blockbuster Phil Kessel trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kessel was at the center of trade rumblings heading into last summer, as the Maple Leafs entered full-on rebuild mode. When the deal went down, it ended a relationship that seemed fraught with tension.

On Sunday, Kessel, who was at the center of controversy during his tenure in Toronto, raised the Stanley Cup above his head, as the Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks in six games.

“He’s a special player,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said. “It’s hard to score goals in this league, and we wanted to add a goal scorer. When (Evgeni) Malkin got hurt, when we were going down the stretch and still with a question of who would make the playoffs, Kessel really was an impact player for us, and then all through the playoffs again.

“I’m so happy for him, because his years in this league haven’t been easy. Now he’s got his name on the Cup.”

Kessel, also left off Team USA for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, had 22 points in 24 postseason games and was in consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Sidney Crosby was eventually named the winner.

But Kessel was instrumental in the Penguins playoff success, playing the right wing on that speedy and talented “HBK Line” with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.

What did all three have in common, apart from giving opposing teams fits most times they were on the ice? All three players were traded from three separate teams to the Penguins within the last 12 months.

Together, they formed one of the most dangerous lines in these playoffs.

Kessel described the past 12 months as a “long year, but it’s the best year I’ve ever had.”

“I mean, it’s an unbelievable feeling, obviously it’s special,” Kessel continued.

“It was way heavier than I thought it was going to be. It’s so special. You dream your whole life for this.’’

‘We thought we had the team,’ says Sharks’ Thornton

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks looks on during the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The San Jose Sharks exorcised the demons against the L.A. Kings in the first round.

They overcame a difficult Nashville Predators team in the second round and put aside the St. Louis Blues to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. After all those difficult times and playoff disappointments, the Sharks had finally gotten to that next level.

But their quest for a Stanley Cup ran into a fast and ultimately unstoppable Pittsburgh Penguins team that had been, since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach, gaining strength throughout the regular season and throughout the playoffs.

For the Penguins, their amazing run culminated with a Game 6 victory and a championship.

“It sucks. That’s the bottom line. It sucks. We thought we had the team, going through the teams we did in the West. It’s just tough right now,” Joe Thornton told reporters.

Despite falling two wins short of a championship, San Jose’s coach Pete DeBoer addressed the emotions going through his veteran players like Patrick Marleau and Thornton, who have been through the best times in San Jose, and the most difficult times, too.

“The end is like hitting a wall. You’ve been going since September. 106 games. How many hundreds of thousands of miles in the air. A special group,” said DeBoer to reporters.

“But only one team can win. That doesn’t take anything away from what those guys accomplished. I don’t think anyone should ever question the leadership or the character or the will of the group of men in there. I think it’s been misplaced for a decade. I would hope they answered some questions. Let’s be honest. Not many people have us making the playoffs. Not many people had us beating L.A. On and on.

“I thought a lot of questions were answered by that group.”

DeBoer didn’t reveal any specific injuries, but said there was a “laundry list” of guys dealing with things. He was asked about Joe Pavelski, who had only one goal in the series, but again the coach didn’t divulge anything.

The Penguins were, however, the best team in basically every game in this series. They dominated at times. Had it not been for the play of Martin Jones, this series could’ve been over in Game 5.

A deep team able to dish out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on three different lines, Pittsburgh’s speed was too much for the Sharks to handle.

“Their speed, the pressure they put on with their speed. It’s not just their speed, they have good sticks, too,” said DeBoer.

“They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds. I think our execution was an issue because of that.”

Added Thornton: “That’s why they’re hoisting this trophy up right now. That’s all I can say.”

Party in Pittsburgh: Penguins fans celebrate Stanley Cup

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The Pittsburgh Penguins, despite a dominant performance in Game 5, couldn’t clinch the Stanley Cup on home ice.

It had been more than 50 years since a major Pittsburgh sports franchise won a championship at home. The Penguins had their chance, but Martin Jones stood in their way. The anticipation had been growing and growing, as a second big screen TV had been added to accommodate excited Pittsburgh fans for that game. Heck, the city of Pittsburgh even re-named a street — for one day at least — after goalie Matt Murray.

While they couldn’t win it all at home, the Penguins went back to San Jose and lifted the Cup following a Game 6 victory over the Sharks.

Thousands of miles back east, fans in Pittsburgh celebrated the team’s second Stanley Cup in eight years. More than 16,000 fans packed the CONSOL Energy Center to witness the victory.

Video: Chris Kunitz, wide open net … and he decided to pass?

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Chris Kunitz. Two-on-one. With Evgeni Malkin.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had what looked to be the perfect opportunity to take a commanding two-goal lead on the San Jose Sharks late in the second period of Game 6. Instead, Kunitz passed up a wide open net for one extra pass back to Malkin, who couldn’t corral the puck in time and missed his chance to score on Martin Jones.

The Penguins went into the second intermission with a 2-1 lead, as they look to clinch the Stanley Cup with a win tonight.

Could that be a turning point in this game? Can the Sharks conjure a comeback to force a Game 7?

Forever ‘Mr. Hockey’: A video tribute to the legendary Gordie Howe

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The hockey world remembered Gordie Howe on Sunday with a video tribute before the beginning of the second period in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Known as Mr. Hockey, Howe passed away Friday at the age of 88.

Members of the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks also wore special No. 9 decals on their helmets during warm-up prior to the beginning of Game 6.