Sorry friends, been a busy couple of weeks, and I felt the need to let the Penguins fourth Stanley Cup marinate for a few days in any case!
It truly was an amazing run, and I am still not sure where I would place it in terms of the pure joy it delivered. I know, I have to admit I am a little spoiled by this. To have seen 4 cups won in my lifetime seems obnoxious compared to many fan bases. The image below has not been updated for this years win, but I think this puts it into perspective.
Yes, Montreal is WAY out front and never to be challenged (at least in my lifetime). Enjoy that Habs fans, you will always be able to say you have won the most Cups. The Pens now join the two New York teams (the Rangers being an ORIGINAL SIX team!) with four. Only the amazing Edmonton Oilers dynasty rates ahead of the Pens in terms of post expansion Cup wins.
So many great stories from this run. For me, the best was the run Sidney Crosby had. It is still amazing to me the number of people who were willing to write off “Uncle Sid”early in the season. There is no denying he didn’t look right, but to me it didn’t seem physical. The legs were still moving, the hands were still there. The fire was not. I tried hard for 6 months, back to last years playoff dud, to find a story on “what was wrong with Sidney”. I was convinced something was sour in that dressing room. I was unable to find anything, but a murmur that perhaps there was a riff between 87 and 66? Never firmly identified, but whispers. However, something changed, coincidentally or not, once Mike Sullivan was hired. The fire was relit within Sid, and the rest, as they say, is history.
There is no doubt in my mind that Uncle Sid was fully deserving of the Conn Smythe, though it was close, apparently by the voting, and in my mind. Story in TSN today says that Phil “The Legend” Kessel was a close second. That is also another great story
Full disclosure, I was not thrilled to have my phone go bananas July 1 last year when “the trade” occurred. I had seen Phil a couple of times last year in Toronto, and it was not impressive. I will also say this, I have never seen a human come as close to a sacrificial lamb in the 21st century as Phil was last year. Much has been said on this story, from hot dogs to his media relations, but lets face it…Leafs media eats their own. I am on record as saying the men who bring Stanley back to Toronto will be Kings for life. But Leaf fans may need to be satisfied knowing Phil is still on your payroll, and may bring that Cup to T-dot this summer…which would of course be the ultimate troll job.
But the Kessel that wore black and gold, especially come playoff time, was not the same man who was chased down the QEW right to the border. Clearly the fire and brimstone of last summer, galvanized a more dedicated Phil. Obviously, it wasn’t an instant hit, but once the “HBK” was formed, Phil truly found a new home. I feel if Phil had buried even a couple of his game 5 and game 6 chances (their were easily a DOZEN grade A chances) he has a Conn Smythe to his name. He was the most dangerous Penguin in many games over the past two rounds, and the effort was there in every zone of the rink. Was he a shot blocking demon? No, but the backcheck was there. And you could certainly see how much this Penguins team liked Phil once he got his chance to host the jug!
Intrigues me how history repeats itself, but just like 2009, a mid-season coaching change lit a fire in the Penguins. It is deeper than that too! Old coach in both cases was viewed as too structured, and was smothering the Penguins guns. Entered new younger coach, and release the hounds. I recognize that likely simplifies the story a little much, but the parallels are unavoidable.
The key difference to me between the Bylsma and Sully runs was that Sully not only invigorated the Penguins core, but he brought with him some reinforcements. It is undeniable the impact the WBS Penguins callups had on this run. Matt Murray is the obvious story, but what about the Bryan Rust goal spree to help get past the Bolts? Connor Sheary magic? And Tom Khunhackl was an effective part of very important fourth line. Big contributors that were not getting a sniff under the previous coaching.
The other story I have to give some play to is the redemption of GM Rutherford. Year One was not impressive to me, but man did he make up for it in year two! He had the midas touch this year. Most important in-season move was certainly the Hagelin deal. Hagelin to me personified the “speed movement” that this Penguins team transformed into. He is so fast, and so dogged in his puck pursuit. I admit, hated him as a Ranger. It was Hagelin who scored the overtime goal to eliminate the Penguins one year ago. You also have to give big props to the acquisitions of Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz. It still baffles me that Chicago, who’s Achilles heel was the lack of a fourth defenceman. Schultz was not as big a contributor, but he certainly provided solid minutes and powerplay performance when Daley was lost. I would really like to see Schultz retained for another year or two. I believe he could develop properly in Pittsburgh under the tutelage of Sergei Gonchar, and while watching how Kristopher Letang and Daley function with similar skill sets.
That brings me around to the final group I need to salute, which is the remainder of the 2009 core. Kris Letang in my mind had a coming out party as a truly elite d-man. He may be my favorite current Penguin. If only I could do one percent of what “Tanger” does out there on the ice, he is so cerebral with the puck, and so often able to get the puck out of danger in his own zone, and is still more than dangerous in the offensive zone, as on the Cup clinching goal.
Chris Kunitz was also a huge part of this run, and I think his contribution was embodied by the great diving backcheck “Kuni” had in game 6. He simply brings so much effort, so much grit to this team that they otherwise have lacked at times. He matches the captains effort, even if he doesn’t have all of Sid’s world class skill.
Speaking of class, what else can be said about Marc Andre Fluery’s composure and attitude throughout the run. It had to be tough, as a clear member of the core, to not be able to contribute to this run. Regardless of his personal feelings, he put team first, and was a big cheerleader throughout. You only saw how truly difficult it was once the Cup was won, and Pascal Dupuis rightfully passed the Cup to the Flower. He wasn’t comfortable at that moment, and really only gave it a cursory lift. You know he was more than happy for his teammates, but on some level didn’t feel a big part of the win. I will say this though. Flower was the Penguins MVP for the season, and without him the Penguins don’t make the playoffs. Whatever happens from here, I will have nothing but respect for #29!
Final comment, as this became a lot longer than I anticipated. Best moment of the celebration for me was seeing Pascal Dupuis lift that Cup. No, Duper didn’t play in the playoffs, but he was an undeniable part of this team’s identity. So many teams seem to gain strength on the “win one for Bourque” type theme. I feel this one was for Pascal as much as anything. Every guy in that dressing room had to be shaken to see a man who loved the game and wanted nothing more than to play, be forced to walk away too soon. It reminds all of their mortality. There are so many great stories on this Penguins team, but Pascal was a pro in every sense of the world. You could see it was a special moment for the entire team.
You never know when the window will close. In 1991 and 1992 it felt to me that those Penguins teams were destined to be the team of the 90’s. And then Dave Volek and the pesky Islanders tripped them up, and they could never get back to the top of the mountain. 2009 felt like the first of many for this generation of Penguins. Then concussions and salary cap jumped up and bit them. All I know is that I loved this run, and loved having my six-year-old boy so much a part of it. At his age, he will surely think this will happen all the time, and there is no way to convince him how precious this is. But the six-year-old within me knows better!
Enjoy this one Pens fans, and for everyone else, hockey will be back sooner than we think, enjoy the summer!