The first question to be asked now that the Pittsburgh Penguins have captured the 2016 Stanley Cup: Can the Penguins all-speed juggernaut continue on to become a dynasty hockey club?
Having required six games to dispose of the San Jose Sharks — with a well-earned 3-1 victory on Sunday night at SAP Center — the Penguins have the makings of a consecutive Cup-winning team.
And, they know how to win just about any which way possible with just about any players.
In their Cup-clincher, it was a previously unknown defenseman, Brian Dumoulin, and an All-Star, Kris Letang, who did the key scoring over two periods.
They combined to thrust Pittsburgh ahead when it counted most. The third goal was an open-netter by Patric Hornqvist.
All three — along with the captain and Conn Smythe Trophy-winner, Sidney Crosby — will be part of the club’s next quest, which will be retaining the Cup.
Here are the ingredients to do so:
- Matt Murray has all the trappings of a star and can only get better.
- Ex-No. 1 puck-stopper, Marc-Andre Fleury almost certainly will be lost in the eventual expansion draft or be traded.
- Even without injured veteran Trevor Daley, the Pens assembled a better unit around ace Kris Letang than the one at the other end of the rink.
- Youthful Olli Maatta, veteran Ben Lovejoy, and Ian Cole upped their compete level.
- Obtained from Edmonton, offense-minded Justin Schultz was an embarrassing steal. Listed as the club’s ninth defenseman at training camp, Dumoulin had honed his game to stardom by Game 6 of the Final round.
- The 1-2 punch (Crosby-Evgeni Malkin) has now been supplemented the way the 1980 Champ Islanders added Butch Goringto the Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier duet. Phil Kessel is Pitt’s answer to Goring, but that’s not all.
A bunch of fleet new faces were imported by general manager Jim Rutherford, and each played a significant role in the club’s success.
Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Bryan Rust were supplemented by wily vets Chris Kunitz, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen and Patric Hornqvist. Not to mention the not-so-secret weapon, Carl Hagelin.
Coming East from Vancouver, Bonino proved to be a brilliant two-way asset strong on face-offs and a masterful shot-blocker. “I’m so glad that Jim Rutherford had faith in me,” enthuses Bonino. “Bringing me to Pittsburgh where I could make a contribution.”
Easily, Rutherford’s most telling off-ice move was replacing former coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan.
Sully’s performance — in every conceivable aspect — was so totally good, some media types suggested that he — not Crosby — should have ben given the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason Most Valuable Player.
“When the coaching change was made,” says Rutherford, “and Sullivan came in, he made an immediate connection with the players.
“Furthermore, he continued to keep that connection and the players bought into his style of play. We became more aggressive and quicker, and it worked.”
The Sharks would be the first to second the motion. Too often they were chasing the Penguins and not catching them.
“The Penguins played a hell of a series,” sums up Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “They played their game for much longer stretches than we were able to and they dictated the play.
“They started quicker than us and put pressure on us with their speed. They forced us into quicker decisions and challenged our execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds. Our execution was an issue because of that.”
Even in Game 5 in Pittsburgh — except for the first period — the Penguins criss-crossed the rink with virtual impunity, but goalie Martin Jones locked the safe during the final 40 minutes.
But there was only so much Jones could do in the finale. For two periods, he kept his team within a goal of tying the count, but his offense-men had little to nothing left in their tanks.
And, when his club finally got a power-play opportunity in the third period, San Jose couldn’t even manage a single shot on goal. Right down to almost the end, the Sharks had a measly one shot on goal and that was more of a floater than a sizzler.
Even when in scoring range, the home team’s shooters fired wide at times when the tying goal still could be scored.
Likewise, when challenged, Pittsburgh’s rookie goalie Matt Murray was equal to the task.
But the abject ineptitude of the Sharks attack as time wound down was appalling and ensured defeat. In the finale, Murray only had to make 18 saves.
Pittsburgh’s dominance was displayed both individually and team-wise. Too often they simply would not let San Jose touch the puck.
Crosby outplayed his counterpart, Joe Pavelski, by a ton. Ditto defenseman Letang over Brent Burns. Letang’s game-winnng — Cup-winning — goal underlines the point.
“Kris doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” says defense mate Lovejoy. “He’s better when he’s into his 27th minute on the ice than when he takes his first shift.”
In only one area did San Jose excel and that was in goal. Over and over again, the Penguins were foiled when they thought they had certain red lights. The pity of it all was that Jones could not score, but he did well limiting Crosby’s opportunities.
“It wasn’t easy for us getting where we are,” says Crosby. “But we stuck together and eventually turned things around.”
Crosby dominated in the most decisive situations, excelling defensively as well as on attack.
The trend toward shot-blocking — actually launched in earnest by then-Rangers coach John Tortorella — never was more of a factor in a playoff final than in 2016.
That, in part, explains the Sharks inability time and again to weave the rubber to the crease.
Over the entire series, the Sharks were game but too often appeared to be skating at 15 m.p.h. compared to 25 m.p.h. for the champs.
San Jose’s game plan included playing a physical game, but that backfired on the Sharks. Early in the final game, Dainius Zubrus tossed a heavy check, but was penalized with the score 0-0 and the first goal so important to each club.
The Penguins power play had all its gears meshed and in no time at all Dumoulin, camped at the blue line, beat Jones on one of the rare drives that made the San Jose hero look ordinary.
Logan Couture tied the match for San Jose, but the Sharks defense collapsed almost immediately and Letang put Pitt ahead to stay.
The lead was reinforced by coach Mike Sullivan’s ability to role four lines with each unit as good as the next.
Hagelin — a failure in Anaheim — jelled with Bonino and Phil Kessel to give the Champs a marvelous high-speed unit.
To the Sharks credit, they made a tourney of it, rebounding off the canvas when many had counted them out.
Joe Thornton played his heart out for San Jose, but couldn’t keep up with Crosby. It was symbolic that the game began with each face eye-to-eye at the opening puck drop.
No sooner had the rubber hit the ice, Sidney whacked Joe with a vicious two-hander — escaped without a penalty, don’t ask me how — and equally noteworthy, Thornton never got even. That — without a doubt — proved to be a telling vignette and in some ways symbolic of the Cup Final.
In the end, the better team won and should be hailed as worthy champions.
With their well-balanced roster, they could very well do what no team does anymore: Win two straight Stanley Cups.
We shall see.