The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators by a score of 2-0 on June 11 to win the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row and the fifth time in franchise history. After defeating the Predators four games to two, the Penguins became the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was awarded his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player, becoming the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1991 and 1992 to go back-to-back as MVP. Crosby, who won his third Stanley Cup, finished the playoffs with 27 points, including eight goals and 19 assists.
The Penguins had no shortage of MVP-worthy candidates, as Evgeni Malkin, Crosby, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel were the top four points leaders of the playoffs. Malkin recorded the most points with 28, and Guentzel led the playoffs with 13 goals and tied the record for most playoff points by a rookie.
Crosby first passed the Stanley Cup to defenseman Ron Hainsey, who up until this season had gone the longest among any active players in the NHL without playing a single playoff game. After goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury skated with the Cup, he passed it along to fellow goalie Matt Murray, a signal that many saw as Fleury passing the goaltending torch to Murray.
The Stanley Cup also ended up in Lemieux’s hands for the fifth time. Along with winning the Cup twice as a player, this year is the third that Lemieux has raised the Stanley Cup as the owner of the Penguins. Additionally, head coach Mike Sullivan won his second Stanley Cup in his second year of coaching for the Penguins. After winning Game 6 in Nashville, the Penguins returned to Pittsburgh to parade through the streets last Wednesday to celebrate their victory with hundreds of thousands of fans.
Stanley Cup Finals: Penguins vs. Predators
Nashville was a team that many thought would be easy to defeat, as they were the lowest seeded team to qualify for the playoffs this year. However, the Predators’ road to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance was notable, as they swept the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in the first round. The Predators also defeated the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks in six games in Rounds 2 and 3, never going to a Game 7, and had a dominant force in goaltender Pekka Rinne, who was among the discussions for MVP.
Despite the Predators’ strong playoff performance, the Penguins took a 2-0 series lead in Pittsburgh. After losing Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, the Penguins won Game 5 in Pittsburgh by a score of 6-0, heading back to Nashville only one win away from repeating as Stanley Cup Champions.
Game 6 went nearly 60 minutes without a goal. Although it appeared as if the Predators struck first, one of the referees lost sight of the puck and blew the whistle, disallowing Nashville’s goal. With about a minute and a half left in the third period, former Nashville Predator Patric Hornqvist finally managed the slap a bouncing puck past Rinne to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead.
The Predators pulled Rinne for an extra attacker during the last minute of play, but Carl Hagelin was able to break away and give the Penguins a 2-0 lead with 14 seconds left in the game. Everyone on the bench celebrated as the clock ticked down to zero, and the Penguins defeated the Predators four games to two to win the Stanley Cup.
The Road to the Finals
Even though the Penguins finished second overall in points this season, their road to the Stanley Cup proved to be challenging. They faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, the team with the fourth most points in the NHL. Murray abruptly left warmups before Game 1 due to injury, forcing Fleury to start the playoffs in net. Fleury led the Penguins to the second round as they defeated the Blue Jackets four games to one.
The Penguins’ next opponent appeared to be even more of a challenge as they faced the Washington Capitals, the best team in the league during the regular season. Although the Penguins took a demanding 3-1 lead in the series, the Capitals bounced back and tied the series at three games apiece. In a pivotal Game 7 in Washington, Fleury stole the show with a shutout and the Penguins defeated the Capitals in Round 2 for the second year in a row.
After defeating two of the best teams in the league, many believed the Ottawa Senators would not pose a large challenge to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, fans were quickly silenced after the Senators defeated the Penguins in Game 1. The Penguins bounced back, but in Game 4, Sullivan pulled Fleury after he gave up four goals in the first period. For the first time in the 2017 playoffs, Murray resumed his position in the net.
Many people questioned Sullivan’s decision to continue starting Murray in the Ottawa series, especially after Fleury’s stellar performances in the previous two rounds. However, Murray shut out the Senators in Game 5 and only allowed three combined goals between Games 6 and 7.
Once again driven to the point of elimination, the Penguins and Senators battled it out in Game 7, eventually leading to double overtime. Despite another solid performance from Senators goalie Craig Anderson, Chris Kunitz managed to find an open slot to score, and the Penguins finally emerged victorious to become the Eastern Conference Champions. Not breaking tradition from previous Cup-winning seasons, Crosby lifted the Prince of Wales Trophy, leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals.
This year’s quest for the Cup was also memorable due to the injuries the Penguins faced. Most notably absent was Kris Letang, who missed the playoffs after neck surgery. Many believed the Penguins would not make it far without their top defenseman, but Hainsey, Brian Dumolin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley stepped up in Letang’s absence.
What Happens Next
The Penguins’ celebration was short-lived for some when it was made public last week that Fleury waived his no-movement clause in his contract in February. With the upcoming expansion draft for the newest NHL team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, teams can only protect a certain number of players, including one goalie. Fleury’s move allows the Penguins to protect 23-year-old Murray and expose 32-year-old Fleury, leaving it probable that the Golden Knights will draft Fleury and bring his 14 years in Pittsburgh to an end.
Despite tonight’s expansion draft, each of the Penguins will still have their day with the Stanley Cup over the summer. Crosby will also be in Las Vegas for tonight’s NHL Awards, where he is a candidate to win the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award.