‘I’m getting chills just thinking about it’ — Pens revel in joining back-to-back club

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NASHVILLE — It’s often hard to contextualize accomplishments, especially in the immediate aftermath.

It didn’t seem to be a problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After Sunday’s thrilling win over the Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins joined some rarefied air. They became the first repeat champion of the salary cap era, and the first back-to-back winner since Detroit turned the trick nearly 20 years ago.

To a man, nearly all the Penguins acknowledged how special this was.

And they had no problem describing how it felt.

“The ’97-98 Wings, who I grew up cheering for being from Michigan,” forward Bryan Rust said. “To be in the same breath as those guys, Stevie [Yzerman] and all them, it’s something that’s irreplaceable.

“I’m getting chills just thinking about it.”

With tonight’s win, the Penguins have sparked a debate about the greatest team of the cap era. They and the Blackhawks are now tied with three titles each — and with all due respect to the Kings and their two Cups, they’re out of the conversation.

The Penguins would, seemingly, have the leg up on Chicago based solely on the last two seasons. The ‘Hawks never advanced past the conference final the year after winning a Cup. With these back-to-back championships, the Pens have done what no other cap teams has and, accordingly, raised the bar.

Head coach Mike Sullivan explained how his group accomplished such a feat.

“Part of the process is listening to all the experts, guys like you guys, telling us we can’t do it,” he said. “And history is telling us we can’t do it, because it hasn’t been done. The very first conversation we had with these guys, I challenged them right away and said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we?’

“Let’s not let someone else write our story.”

Pittsburgh certainly wove its own narrative. It won a title despite having no clear-cut No. 1 defenseman and, per Sportsnet, became the first team to ever win a Cup with a blueline comprised of guys that had never received a Norris vote.

The Pens won with an unheralded first-year player, Jake Guentzel, coming out of nowhere to tie the NHL record for playoff points by a rookie. They won despite losing versatile center Nick Bonino to a broken tibia in Game 2.

Their story had plenty of twists, even more turns, and an unlikely ending. Patric Hornqvist knocked home an ugly game-winner tonight, banking a puck from behind the goal and off Pekka Rinne‘s shoulder.

Put it all together, and Pittsburgh’s story isn’t just unique — it’s historic. The team is now forever etched in in NHL lore, right alongside a Detroit club the players talked about with reverence.

“I remember watching those Red Wings teams,” Ian Cole said. “It was something special to watch those teams, and I remember the way I felt watching those teams win.

“I knew if there was a team that could do it, it would be us.”