As the cheering for the champs reverberates throughout Pittsburgh, deep-thinkers on 30 teams — including the Vegas Golden Knights — are studying the Penguins fabulous formula.
It happens every year — the copycat technique for mimicking a Cup-winner. Only this June, the Penguins only had to mimic themselves.
To win two straight Stanley Cups required an amazing confluence of luck, wizardry, motivation and, most of all, talent with a Capital ‘T.’
After all, no National Hockey League team has constructed back-to-back Cups since the Detroit Red Wings pulled off the feat in 1998, sweeping the Washington Capitals in four straight (Detroit actually won eight straight Cup Final games).
But that was in the pre-salary cap era when it was a heck of a lot easier to retain a championship roster. Nowadays — not so much.
Just think of the mountainous obstacles that prevented previous Cup-winners from repeating. The factors of physical and mental attrition are enough to bring down a champion. That old Devil Injury can do it himself, not to mention cockiness.
You name any of those points and, yes, the Penguins suffered from them — with one key exception, cockiness. Coach Mike Sullivan just wouldn’t let that intervene.
So, how were they able to construct a second Thruway to the Cup? Here are the prime factors and, believe me, there’s no way the copycats can duplicate some of Sullivan’s assets because a Sidney Crosby is one of a kind.
What a wonderful one-two parlay. Matt Murray goes down with an injury and Marc-Andre Fleury steps in like a Vezina Trophy-winner. When Murray returns, he demonstrates why he should win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year since he still is eligible. Murray plays goal with a rare blend of skill and determination. His belief is simple: “I should make every save!” And he did for the Cup-winner.
BOTTOM LINE: None of the teams Pittsburgh faced could equal this dynamic duet between the pipes. None.
When it was known that annual Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang would miss the entire playoff run, many sages figured that the Pens never would get past the high-scoring Caps. Sully iced an all-time, no name backline. Check it out: Brian Dumoulin, Ron (Never Before On A Playoff Team) Hainsey, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole and Olli Maatta. That you call a defense?
Sure was from April through June and Sully tells why: “They played within themselves — not trying to do too much and not putting the team in vulnerable positions.
“They kept the game simple and defended hard; taking hits to make plays and blocking shots when called upon. They did all the little things that added up to big things. The strength of the group was in their balance.”
BOTTOM LINE: That’s one formula that has copycats in Toronto Maple Leafs-land — to cite one example with no-name defenders — thinking that there’s no urgency to upgrade the blue line corps. Other clubs may be thinking the same way. The Islanders, for instance.
From Game 1 of the Final, Nashville knew it had to fear Pittsburgh’s “Quick Strike” attack force. With the Gold Dust Twins of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top of their game, already the Preds were in trouble. Add to the recipe, Phil Kessel, Old Reliable Chris Kunitz plus Conor Sheary and you know why Pekka Rinne got riddled.
Then, Sullivan reaches into his magic hat and pulls out a kid from Omaha, Nebraska, of all places, named Jake Guentzel and the offensive beat goes on and on with the likes of Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist, just to name a few more.
Scary-times-100. Oh, yeah, the vet-of-vets, face-off-winning Matt Cullen. “He’s a great teammate,” says Sully, “and a terrific player.” (About to retire, by the way.)
It all starts and ends with the combo of talent-leadership exuded by Captain Crosby, the Gordie Howe of this era.
BOTTOM LINE: As the coach says in the understatement of the half-century: “We’ve got good players.” The only club that could come close to matching that array of scoring talent was Washington and you know what happened to them.
In 2016-17 GM Jim Rutherford made the genius move, naming Sullivan as coach to replace Mike Johnston. From that point to the present it’s been a case of up, up and AWAY. Sully has proven to be fiery, passionate and cerebral, earning the utmost respect from his players. Rutherford’s scouting staff continues to unearth gems and hones their games to sharpness in Wilkes-Barre-Scranton.
“I have believed in this coaching staff,” Sully explains. “It works hard and works well together getting the best out of the players we had.”
BOTTOM LINE: A simple point is that a strategic coaching change can turn a gifted team in the right direction.
NOT SO SECRET WEAPON
Just how a previous concussion victim such as Crosby could rebound from the beatings he absorbed in the Washington and Ottawa series strains credulity.
Away from Pittsburgh, there’s a legion of Crosby-detractors but none inside the Penguins dressing room. “We see what Sid does on and off the ice and learn from him,” asserts Rust. “It’s how he carries himself and the little extra things he does before and after practice. It’s what makes him such a great leader.”
BOTTOM LINE: Right now, there’s no NHL player as good in so many ways as Crosby.
BEATING THE FATIGUE FACTOR
After 100 games plus last year and another 100 plus this year, the Penguins could have pleaded fatigue but there wasn’t a peep. Or, as Hornqvist sums it up, “We couldn’t be tired in this part of the year. We stayed focused and played the right way.”
BOTTOM LINE: And that’s why they are repeat Champs.
Copycats, go do your thing; but you can’t snag a Crosby or copy him.
P.S. Check The Maven’s Pre-Final Prediction: Penguins in six. Thanks, Sid!