Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup finals with Western Conferance champions San Jose figured to be one of the most difficult Stanley Cup series in recent memories. This would be Pittsburgh's fifth attempt at a fourth Cup and the first since 2009. And after roughly 30 years in the league, this was San Jose's first taste of Cup fever and the team's fans were hungry, as were the players, staff, and management. And while the series would open in Pittsburgh again, the thought of having to play -- and win -- several games in San Jose was daunting. In fact, until earlier in this very season, the Pens hadn't won a single game in San Jose since 1996! That's a dreadful record by any standard. The Sharks have some very good players and an excellent new goalie, but that doesn't explain Pittsburgh's 20 years of total failure in that city. I was worried. I felt like we'd have to win all of our home games and still at least one on the road to win this Stanley Cup. It could be done, but we'd have to win in San Jose, something our players just didn't do. But I did think we had a shot, because we had so many new players, like Hagelin and Kessel, who hadn't been a part of that horrid losing streak, and the rookies, who wouldn't back down from the challenge, and we were riding a hot rookie goalie the whole way. So we had a chance, but it had to start with a game one win in Pittsburgh.
Game One was played on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh. A little over midway through the first period, the Pens jumped out to a 2-0 lead, courtesy of goals by Rust and Sheary, two of our fearless rookies. San Jose came back with two of their own in the second to tie it up, but in the third, Nick Bonino notched a goal with two and a half minutes left to help the Pens to a much-needed 3-2 opening series win and a good omen for how the series would start. It was almost uncanny how the team that scored first in nearly all of these playoff games went on to win the games, so it was imperetive to score first in each game. And the San Jose goalie? Martin Jones stopped 38 out of 41 shots for a .927 save percentage, which would be good by anyone's standards, but Matt Murray stopped 24 of 26 for a .923 save percentage and obviously allowed one fewer goal, so he was the hero. This would be the story of the series, as Jones would have an outstanding series, but Pittsburgh would pepper him with shots the entire time and you can't win a series by yourself. Murray took some shots too, but the team helped him out defensively, so he didn't face as many shots and he came up big with most he did face, and that was the main difference.
If anything, Game Two was even more tough. San Jose had come to play and they weren't going anywhere quietly. They wanted this Cup. But then, so did the Pens. The Pens had taken a lot of abuse since that last 2009 Cup, when they were young and had been to two straight. They were supposed to be a dynasty and were supposed to go to many Cups, certainly four, five, six more in the next six or seven years. But that's not how it worked out. And the past three plus seasons, with embarrassing early season exits from the playoffs, the last two at the hands of the Rangers, and been too much for Pens fans. As a result, there weren't too many players left over from that 2009 Stanley Cup team. Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Letang, and Kunitz. That's it. And these players wanted it badly. To excercise the ghosts. The demons. To get critics off their backs once and for all. Anything other than winning a Cup this year would be viewed as failure. So, Game Two. There was no scoring in the first period. In the second, Phil Kessel scored his 10th goal of the series, with assists from his "HBK" linemates Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. However, San Jose struck for a tying goal in the third, thus sending this game into overtime. Two and a half minutes into overtime, Conor Sheary, one of our blazing fast rookies, struck for a game winning goal with assists from Letang and Crosby and with that, Pittsburgh had a series lead of 2-0 to go back to San Jose with. Brilliant! And the goalies? Jones stopped 28 of 30 shots for a .933 save percentage, very good indeed, while Murray outplayed him once more by stopping 21 out of 22 shots for a .955 save percentage and the win. Two great goalies. In fact, the Pens had now faced four great goalies against four great teams and our rookie goalie, Matt Murray, had outplayed all of them.
Maybe not so fast. In a predictable Pittsburgh loss in San Jose (3-2, Sharks), Murray gave up three goals in 26 shot attempts for an .885 save percentage, numbers not nearly as good as he had been putting up. Meanwhile, his counterpart had a game for the ages. Jones stopped virtually everything thrown his way, stopping 40 out of 42 shots, for a .952 save percentage, and that won the game for them. Scoring didn't hurt of course. Unlikely scoring hero, Ben Lovejoy, scored for the Pens again while Patric Hornqvist notched his eighth goal of the playooffs. But three San Jose players scored, and that one extra goal was the one that counted and while that one extra goal counted, it was really Jones shutting down Pittsburgh's high scoring offense that won the game for San Jose.
I had been saying for a week that we were going to have to win at least one in San Jose -- somehow. Maybe it would happen in Game Four? Matt Jones couldn't stay on fire like that forever and Murray always bounces back from tough games. About seven minutes into the game, defenseman Ian Cole struck for his first goal of the playoffs, another shocker, because this is another Pittsburgh player who doesn't score. He didn't register a single goal during the regular season. Shortly, then, into the second period, Malkin scored on a much needed power play goal to put the Pens up 2-0. Midway through the third, San Jose scored, but with two minutes left, Eric Fehr scored one final goal for the Pens to give the team a cushion so the guys could cruise to an away victory in San Jose, 3-1 and a 3-1 series lead. Things were looking good for the Pens. I believe only one team in NHL history had ever come from 3-1 down to win a Cup and I'm willing to be wrong about there being that many to have accomplished that. And the goalies? Martin Jones stopped 17 out of 20 for an .850 save percentage, massively off his career night of two nights previously. Matt Murray, meanwhile, stopped 23 out of 24 shots for an incredible .958 save percentage and the big time win, thus helping to cement his status in Penguins lore.
Game Five was an eliminatiom game fot the Sharks. If they lost this one, the series would be over and Pittsburgh would have another Stanley Cup. When teams play elimination games, normally they pull out all the stops. The rule books go flying out the doors, it's more physical, they fight with their backs to the walls. Things don't normally go right for the team leading the series. That's what happened against washington, you may remember. This game was being played in Pittsburgh and there was a lot of pressure to win it all tonight. No major championship had been won at home in front of the hometown fans since 1960, when the Pirates beat the Yankees for the World Series. Since then, two World Series championships, six Super Bowl titles, and three Stanley Cups had all been won on the road. The fans wanted to finally see a championship won at home and the team wanted to give it to them. Unfortunately, San Jose had other plans. The Sharks came out pushing the puck up the ice and scored within a minute. They scored again less than two minutes later. The arena felt shell shocked. The crowd started returning to life when Malkin scored on a power play about five minutes into the period and seconds later, when Hagelin scored again to tie it up. The tied score was short lived, however. About 10 minutes later, San Jose scored its third goal of the game and in the third period, added a fourth goal, an empty netter, to win 4-2 and to bring the series to 3-2, Pittsburgh. Murray had another rough game, stopping 18 of 21 shots for an 857 save percentage, nothing like he had the game before. Meanwhile Martin Jones returned to form, stopping 44 out of an amazing 46 shots for an .957 save percentage and the win. Virtually everyone who saw that game agrees that it was Jones' stellar play in goal that won the game for the Sharks.
Game Six was even bigger, I'd say, for the Penguins because it was back in San Jose, where the Sharks were practically guaranteed a win before coming back to Pittsburgh, where anything could happen. I was desperate for a win tonight and I think a lot of other people were too. In the first period, the only scoring came from that noted Pittsburgh scoring machine, Brian Dumoulin, netting his second goal of the playoffs, the defenseman wth one career goal and none on the season and now two in this year's playoffs. Where these two goals came from, no one will ever know. In the second period, San Jose leader, Logan Couture, scored a goal to tie the game. About a minute later, however, Kris Letang scored another goal for the Pens and late in the third, Patric Hornqvist scored his ninth playoff goal on an empty netter to put the game away 3-1, leading Pittsburgh to a 4-2 series win and its fourth Stanley Cup championship! As for the goalies, both did well, as befitting their elite status. Martin Jones stopped 24 of 26 shots for a .923 save percentage in a losing effort, while Matt Murray stopped 18 of 19 shots for a .947 save percentage for the win. For the playoffs, Murray set a rookie goaltender wins record with an overall record of 15-6 and a save percentage of .923 and a goals against average of 2.08, all exceptional numbers for any rookie, let alone one who only got to play in only 13 regular season games solely due to Marc-Andre Fleury's bad cuncussion that kept him out for the bulk of the remainder of the season. But Murray's few regular season stats mirror those of his playoff run, so he's the real deal. In the regular season, he went 9-2 with a .930 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average. So, at age 22, Murray is not only our goalie of the future, but now our goalie of the present and Fleury, a former all star, two time Stanley Cup winner, a still young 31-year-old former number one draft pick can still play and hopefully will split duties with Murray during the 2016-17 season. His 2016 numbers were 35-17-6 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.29 goals against average. Nothing to sneeze at, certainly,
And the other players? Team captain and center, Sidney Crosby, was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for the playoff MVP, which he possibly deserved. We wouldn't have won the Tampa Bay series without him. He scored 19 points in 24 playoff games. However, I continue to feel you don't win a Cup without a hot goalie and if we had not had Murray, I believe we wouldn't have even reached the Cup finals, let alone the conference finals. So, in my opinion, Matt Murray deserved that trophy. But this was the only award that I know of that Crosby had never won, so maybe the NHL thought it was time he do so, I don't know. Maybe they think the Penguins will return and Murray might win then. I can only hope so. Speaking of another clutch playoff performer, right winger Phil Kessel led the team in scoring with 22 points in 24 games. I'm not sure he didn't merit consideration as well, but again Crosby is the one with the headlines and the one considered the best player in the world, so maybe that worked against Kessel, I don't know. I just know that Kessel is feared for the speed and power of his shot, and yet he remains underappreciated throughout the hockey world, something I will never understand. Finally, another deserving candidate for the Conn Smythe was center Evgeni Malkin, one of Pittsburgh's assistant captains. While missing one game with an injury, he still managed to score 18 points, one fewer than Crosby, and he had a good power play playoff record, unlike most of his teammates. They don't say he goes into "Beast Mode" for nothing.
Yet, for all of the multimillion dollar superstar power, much of the credit goes to the unknowns and the rookies. Fourth line center, Matt Cullen, scored some points at some very opportune moments. Center Nick Bonino scored an amazing 18 points, even though before this year began, I doubt most people would ever had heard of him. Former Ranger and Duck, left winger Carl Hagelin, scored 16 points in 24 games and had a plus rating of 9. Former Capital and center, Eric Fehr, didn't score a lot, but when he did, it seemed like every point came at important moments of the games in which he scored. Defenseman Olli Maatta stepped in when Trevor Daley got injured and scored seven points from a non-scoring position and had a plus 5 rating. Star defenseman Kris Letang scored 15 points, unheard of from that position, and had a plus rating of 6.
And let's not forget the rookies. In addition to Murray, Tom Kuhnhackl scored five points, Sidney Crosby's left wing linemate, Connor Sheary, scored 10 important points, and right winger Bryan Rust literally took games over, winning at least one or two by himself, and scored nine important points while maintaining a plus 7 rating.
San Jose lost its first chance at a Stanley Cup and its two veteran stars are old enough to make one wonder if they'll ever get an opportunity like this again. Meanwhile, this is Pittsburgh's fourth Stanley Cup in five tries and first since 2009. The similarities between this year and 2008-2009 are eerily similar. In both years, the coaches were fired midway through and team minor league coaches were promoted/hired. For both, there were established superstars, in both cases, primarily the same ones, but in both cases, new veterans were brought in to provide leadership, defense, and scoring opportunities. In both cases, the teams breezed through the first few rounds rather easily. In both cases, the finals were hard and went at least six games before Pittsburgh prevailed. Similarities.
And this year, the 2016-17 season? After the 2009 season, there were a number of defections. People left as free agents, were traded, some perhaps retired. During this offseason, Ben Lovejoy signed with the Rangers, and we decided not to bring two or three minor players back, including our third string goalie, who wasn't very good. We have ample minor leage goalie talent, and when I say "talent," I mean talent. After this season, we're going to have to leave some players unprotected for the expansion draft for the new Las Vegas team. It's just part of the game. I suspect we'll leave Fleury unprotected. He's not getting any younger, has a big salary, has lost his starting job to Matt Murray, and we have talented minor leaguers waiting in the wings. I don't know who else we'll leave unprotected, but we have eight or nine months to ponder this and other questions. My point is that, we're bringing back the core of the team, nearly all of the team that won last year's Stanley Cup. And while nothing is guaranteed and while you can never be fully prepared for injuries, especially to key players, there's no reason to think we can't repeat this year, unlike in 2010-2015. We have the players, we have the talent, we have the experience. Here's hoping for our fifth Stanley Cup in 2017.