Road to back-to-back Stanley Cups not easy for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Bucky Dent, The Sports Xchange  |  June 13, 2017 at 11:40 AM
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Winning one Stanley Cup is hard. Winning two in a row is almost impossible, underscored by the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins are the first to accomplish the feat since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1998.

And doing it the way Pittsburgh did it? Well, that's a road no NHL team has taken since the league changed the playoff format to require teams to win four best-of-seven series.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray and Co. worked harder to win their back-to-back titles than any NHL team. Of a possible 56 playoff games the last two years, the Penguins played 49. They won three Game 7s, including two this year, and swept exactly none of their eight series.

Which, according to some Penguins, made Sunday night's 2-0 Cup-clinching win over the Nashville Predators in Bridgestone Arena even more rewarding.

"Just to be able to do this with the guys back-to-back is an unbelievable feeling," forward Carl Hagelin said. "The fact that (the Predators) are so good here at home, to be able to finish it off here is unbelievable. I'm almost speechless."

Depth has been a big factor in Pittsburgh's consecutive championships. It made this run without its top defenseman, Kris Letang, relying on a group of unheralded blue-liners who mostly came from other places.

Murray, Crosby, Nick Bonino and Game 6 hero Patric Hornqvist all missed at least one playoff game with injuries. Into the breach stepped guys like Marc-Andre Fleury, who threw a Game 7 shutout in Washington, and rookie winger Jake Guentzel, who scored 13 playoff goals, including four in the Stanley Cup Final.

"I've said all along here that you don't win championships without character," said coach Mike Sullivan, who is 8-for-8 in playoff series. "I believe we have it in abundance in our dressing room. We really believe we have a unique chemistry within our room."

Chemistry is one thing. Icing lines centered by Crosby and Malkin are another. Not only are they the most talented players on the ice nearly every night, they also have the ability to find an extra gear few can match in the postseason.

"They're generational players," Sullivan said. "They're different players, but they're both elite in their own way."

FIRST TIME, NOT THE LAST TIME: Even though Nashville was the lowest-seeded of the 16 playoff teams, one might make a mistake if they look at its first Stanley Cup Final as an outlier.

Check out the Predators' roster. When next season starts in four months, forwards Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala and playoff standout Colton Sissons will still be 25 or younger. Defensemen Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm will all be between 26 and 28.

Simply put, this team isn't close to its peak, something that has its core excited, even as it mourned Sunday night's defeat.

"For some of those guys, that was their second or third Cup," Subban said of Pittsburgh. "I think we gained a ton of experience from this run. We had some guys stepping up that hadn't played a lot of games in the NHL, let alone the playoffs.

"Listen, it's going to sting, it's going to hurt for a while. At the end of the day, there's a lot of guys in the league that don't understand what it takes to get here. We know what it takes to get here now, and we have to learn from this experience."

There is room under the salary cap, although some of that is probably going toward a new contract for Johansen, a restricted free agent. As a true No. 1 center, Johansen will command big coin, and his absence during the Stanley Cup Final after emergency thigh surgery was a difference-maker.

Assuming this team keeps Johansen and its young but mature core continues to improve, Nashville is in position to contend for years to come.

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