The Pittsburgh Penguins are Eastern Conference Champions. Yeah, Pittsburgh is going to be celebrating this win into and all throughout the holiday weekend. From where this team was when the coaching change was made in December, to where they are now, is simply amazing. Mike Sullivan changed the identity of this team. Jim Rutherford made the necessary moves to enhance that identity. And now, here we are. The Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Final.
It wasn’t an easy road though. Their Eastern Conference Final opponent gave the Penguins one heck of a fight, even being down key players. Like any good team, they had guys step up and perform at a level necessary to be successful (Vasilevsky. Hats off to you dude.). And at the end of this night, the Lightning were one goal shy of the Final themselves.
We knew going in that this was going to be a fast series, with a great dose of skill. As I stated in my preview of the series, I just believed the Penguins were the faster and more skilled team. Many, including myself, believed the Penguins were the better team. The Penguins proved they were in game seven.
Now I could sit here and break this down game by game, saying what the Penguins did right and what they did wrong. Game three being an example of the former, and the first two periods of game four being an example of the latter. I’m not going to do that. I want to talk about WHY this team won. Why they were able to look adversity and elimination in the face and rise above it. Why they came alive in games six and seven and outplayed one of the faster, more skilled teams in the league. Why they punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final: Sid and Geno.
Don’t get me wrong here. This was wholly a team effort. I’m not forgetting about Sheary and Maatta, who bounced back after being healthy scratches at some point in the series and played some of the best hockey they’ve ever played, especially Maatta. I’m not forgetting about Bryan Rust and his two goals, that could’ve easily been four, in the biggest game of his career. I’m not forgetting about Ben Lovejoy and how he is making the haters of the Despres trade rethink the fact that they hate it (seriously, he’s been fantastic in these playoffs). I’m not forgetting about Chris Kunitz, who has found some gas left in the tank and is playing at a level we haven’t seen in a long time from him. I’m not forgetting about Matt Murray, who could’ve easily been rattled by his benching in game five, but answered the call with two solid games facing elimination.
I’m not forgetting about anyone, but this all stems from leadership. Crosby and Malkin played two great games when this team was facing elimination. Go ahead and scrutinize Malkin’s play early in the series and Sid’s passiveness in games four and five, but the fact is that when this team needed its leaders to lead, they did it. Crosby had three game-winning goals in the series. Malkin finds himself on a four-game point streak. And they both found another gear in the final two games. Malkin was skating hard in all three zones, making impressive plays in the offensive zone as well as back checking in the defensive zone. Crosby’s goal in game six was just stupid good. He made passes when he needed to, but was creating shots for himself. That’s when both of these guys are at their best. The team sees that. They see their two best players leading by example. This is a close knit team, what choice do they have but to give everything they have too?
I’ve said this all playoffs. This team is special. A SPECIAL kind of special. Just when things seem like they’re going to fall apart, they answer with resiliency. When things go wrong, it’s so easy to blaim the coaching or the leaders’ lack of leadership. But things are going right. Right to the Cup Final. And I’m giving credit where credit is due. Sid and Geno have lead this team here. They’re goal is 16 wins. 12 down, 4 to go. Bring on San Jose.