I remember sitting in Dallas in October watching the first game of the season. I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to be a long season if this is who we are.” It was a bad game. We couldn’t establish a forecheck. We couldn’t gain any speed through the neutral zone. And forget about any sustained pressure with speed or a forecheck. Now, this was only one game, but it still scared me. And the next 27 games would prove my concern correct. We didn’t have an identity. We didn’t know who we were. It was going to be a long season. And then, starting December 12th, 2015, it all changed. And in the span of less than a month, we were watching a new team. A team with an identity. The fastest and most resilient team I’ve watched in my lifetime. And now, they’re on top of the hockey world. They’re the Stanley Cup champions.
This could be an exhaustive piece, but for the sake of time, my sanity, and your attention, I’ll be as brief as possible. The first quarter of the season was painful. Our stars weren’t performing. Our offense couldn’t do anything, even though the majority of our payroll was dedicated to those who put the puck in the net. Marc-Andre Fleury was pretty much the only reason we were only a few points shy of a playoff spot in early December. If it weren’t for him, we would’ve been near the bottom. There’s no doubt in my mind of that. Our defense was decent, but not great and our penalty kill was good, but this team was not built to be defensive and conservative. So changes were made. Here are the moments and moves that mattered in the Penguins’ championship season:
Enter Mike Sullivan, Trevor Daley, and Carl Hagelin. All three of these moves were vital to the Penguins success in 2015-2016. Mike Sullivan challenged the player’s heart and challenged them to be better versions of themselves, especially the leaders on this team that have always been under the most scrutiny, like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. Crosby and Letang especially answered the new coach’s challenge. Crosby went on to lead the NHL in points from the time Sullivan got hired and Letang made more than a mere case for a Norris consideration, which the hockey world refused to give that credit to Tanger. Trevor Daley found a resurgence in a Penguins sweater and gave some life and mobility to the Pens’ defense. Jim Rutherford deserves to win GM of the Year for just that Daley/Scuderi trade. My goodness, what a freakin’ steal. The Penguins really seemed to catch some serious fire when they acquired Carl Hagelin from Anaheim in exchange for David Perron. The trade worked out for both teams. Perron played well in Anaheim and Hagelin was that last piece that made the Penguins a blazing fast team.
Malkin’s injury. At the time when Malkin went down, it seemed that the Penguins’ season was in serious jeopardy. They had just started to play really well over the last couple months, then Malkin goes down for the rest of the regular season and a few playoff games. If this hadn’t happened, the “HBK Line” probably would’ve never been born. Hagelin and Kessel were playing with Geno, and they were playing well, but when Bonino centered the line in Malkin’s absence, it shot to another level. All three guys levels of play went way up. They found perfect chemistry with each other and it was the perfect blend of speed, skill, and hockey smarts on one line. Call it the first, second, or third line. Call it the HBK Line. Call it whatever you want, this was the best line in hockey. And it wasn’t even close.
The Baby Pens grew up. Would the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup without Bryan Rust, Tommy Kuhnhackl, and/or Conor Sheary? Nope. These three guys were amazing. Rust showed he could play on any line. He could grind it out on the 4th line, but still showed skill to play with Crosby or Geno on the 1st and 2nd lines. Rust scored some big goals in the playoffs, probably none bigger than his two in game seven of the ECF against Tampa. Sheary was brilliant in the 1st round against the Rangers. His speed and forecheck was ridiculous. He definitely got tired as the playoffs went along, but after being a healthy scratch, he found some new energy and was a force again in the Stanley Cup Final. He scored a huge OT goal in game two. Kuhnhackl was a little more quiet in terms of the scoresheet, but don’t think that he didn’t have an impact. He was great on the penalty kill and found great chemistry with 39 year-old magician Matt Cullen.
Fleury’s concussions lead Matt Murray into stardom. Matthew F. Murray. And the “F” standing for “Freaking.” What a dude. What a goalie. This guy will be a star for years to come. He’s 22 and plays with the calming presence of a 32 year-old. He’s only going to get better. That’s scary. Some think that Murray deserved the Conn Smythe, and there’s definitely a case for it. He was amazing, and the Penguins wouldn’t have won without him.
The “underachievers”….achieved. Ben Lovejoy. Ian Cole. Justin Schultz. Eric Fehr. Olli Maatta. These guys were vital to the Penguins success this season, especially down the stretch. When Daley went down for the season in the playoffs, the other D-men stood tall and played insanely well. Maatta responded very well to being a healthy scratch after constantly getting beat one-on-one. He played some of the best defensive hockey of his career. Eric Fehr helped stabilize the fourth line with Kuhnhackl and Cullen, and helped out a lot on the penalty kill. And how great were Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, and Justin Schultz? They were more than solid on defense and helped the Penguins move the puck up the ice. They did exactly what Sully needed them to do.
The other defensemen. All eyes go to Letang when he’s on the ice, but what about his partner for most of the playoffs? Brian Dumoulin is a stud. He’s just…so solid. He made maybe two mistakes all postseason. So solid in the defensive zone and has wheels for a “defensive” defenseman.
Moneymakers earned their keep. At the end of the day, Crosby, Geno, Kunitz, Hornqvist, even Fleury can hang their hat and be proud of their performance. A lot of people can scrutinize Kunitz for his decline, but he had some stretches in the playoffs where he was a shade of who he was in his prime. Fleury is the ultimate teammate. He could’ve easily thrown a fit about Murray getting the starts after Flower was good to go, and he might’ve internally. That I don’t know. What I do know is that he supported Murray and helped him along the way. He put the team ahead of himself, which is what great teammates and leaders do. Hornqvist continues to show how great of a deal the James Neal trade was (I’m a Neal advocate by the way). Hornqvist is a better fit for Sully’s system. Neal played great with Geno, but was way too streaky. Hornqvist contributes every night. Not always on the scoresheet, but goalie screens aren’t accounted for there. Horny’s always wreaking havoc. That opens up ice for Sid to do his thing. Even though Geno played really well for only a few games in the playoffs, he was their best player under Mike Johnston. His contributions early in the season can’t go unnoticed, and he stepped up when he had to in the playoffs. And finally, Crosby is the best in the world. He proved it again. Did he lead the NHL in scoring? Did he lead the league in scoring the playoffs? No and no. But, he took over games. He scored when it mattered. He raised his teammates up when it mattered. He was clutch. That’s why he raised his second Cup and a certain rival still has yet to play for one.
Do it for Duper. They sure did, didn’t they? I don’t think anyone tied to the Penguins had a dry eye when Pascal Dupuis raised Lord Stanley’s Cup. This is a guy who fought so hard to come back from injuries and multiple blood clots, and unfortunately, got to the point where retirement was his only option. For him, like it should be, hockey wasn’t as important as his family. But you know it hurt like hell for him to hang his skates up. He was still there in the room with the guys and up in the pressbox during games. He was still tied to this team, and the guys wanted to win for him. Duper got to go out a champion.
If I had three words to describe this team, here’s what they’d be: Fast. Resilient. Special. This team put aside the monstrosity of who they were that night in Dallas and over the marathon of the season, turned into the greatest team in the league. Contributions should be credited all the way from the top with Lemieux and Burkle to Dana Heinze and the guys that get almost no recognition and everyone in between. This was a true team effort. And it made the Penguins great again. Go ahead Pittsburgh. Celebrate this one. Savor it. And get ready for that title defense.