It’s two straight for Pens

Hornqvist with winner, Crosby MVP again

12.06.2017
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The Pittsburgh Penguins with its star forwards Yevgeni Malkin (left) and Sidney Crosby (right) are the first NHL team to win two straight Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings (1997, 1998). Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

NASHVILLE – In a dramatic conclusion to the 2017 Stanley Cup final, the Pittsburgh Penguins blanked the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game Six at Bridgestone Arena to earn their second straight championship on 11 June.

Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby received his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, enhancing his reputation as the greatest forward of his era. The ultra-competitive 29-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia elevated his game in the final and finished with 27 points, including a playoff-leading 19 assists.

“Everybody understands when you get this far, you have to get through some adversity,” said Crosby. “We found a way. We’ve got a collection of guys who understand what it takes to win.”

Winning this hard-fought series cements the iconic legacy of the Penguins with Crosby and Russian superstar Yevgeni Malkin, whose 28 points topped the playoffs. This incarnation has now won one more Cup than the Mario Lemieux-era Pens, who triumphed in 1991 and 1992 with a roster featuring Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, and other all-time greats. Pittsburgh also became the first NHL team to earn back-to-back titles in the salary cap era. The last team with consecutive Cups was Detroit in 1997 and 1998.

Patric Hornqvist’s Game Six winning goal was wildly unexpected. Picking up the rebound from Justin Schultz’s drive off the back boards, the 30-year-old native of Sollentuna, Sweden banked the puck off Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s back with 1:35 left in the third period. Predators coach Peter Laviolette used his challenge to argue for goaltender interference, but the goal stood.

You could say it’s been a good year for Swedish hockey. Tre Kronor won the Worlds in Cologne, Germany last month, and Hornqvist, who was drafted last overall in 2005 (230th) by Nashville, is the third Swede to score the Stanley Cup winner, following Ulf Samuelsson (1991, Pittsburgh) and Henrik Zetterberg (2008, Detroit). Fellow Swede Carl Hagelin iced this victory with an empty-netter with 14 seconds remaining.

“This was a team effort from the first shift to the last shift,” said Hornqvist. “I just got lucky to score that first goal. Obviously it’s the biggest goal I’m ever going to score.

After hoisting the Cup, Crosby handed it off to Ron Hainsey. The 36-year-old American defenceman, a two-time World Junior participant (2000, 2001) and 2009 World Championship team member, played a whopping 907 NHL regular season games before seeing his first post-season action this year.

Meanwhile, it was difficult for Nashville supporters to swallow defeat after Music City erupted with hockey passion this spring. The Predators grabbed the last Western Conference playoff berth with 94 points and then ousted the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Anaheim Ducks en route to their first final in franchise history. With country music stars like Faith Hill and Dierks Bentley performing the national anthem and gleeful non-stop crowd chants, the atmosphere was unparalled – until the Penguins ended Smashville’s dream.

“It stings,” said Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban. “Obviously there’s a lot of emotions and a lot of tears. There should be. We wanted to lift the Cup this year but it didn’t happen.”

Pittsburgh had to beat three tough teams to make this year’s final, including the newly ascendant Columbus Blue Jackets, the league-leading Washington Capitals, and the well-disciplined Ottawa Senators. The Penguins have endured a lot of scrutiny over the years as they forged their legend.

After losing the 2008 final to Detroit, they rebounded to defeat the Wings in the rematch in 2009 as Malkin was named the MVP with 36 playoff points. However, the Penguins were viewed as a classic example of squandered potential when they failed to reached the finals again for the next six seasons. The injury-plagued Crosby, though, would begin his renaissance in 2013/2014 when he won his second Art Ross Trophy with 104 points. He then helped Canada win Olympic gold again and defeat Russia for its first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in eight years in 2015 in the Czech Republic, led Pittsburgh to victory over the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup final, and won the 2016 World Cup of Hockey versus Team Europe.

Nashville battled valiantly to make this one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup finals in recent memory, even though many of the scores were lopsided. Both teams achieved significantly better results on home ice, especially their starting goalies.

Pittsburgh took a 2-0 series lead into Music City with a 5-3 win in Game One (despite being held shotless for more than 37 minutes) and a 4-1 win in Game Two. Rinne, the MVP of the 2014 Worlds and Best Goalie in 2015, allowed eight goals on 36 shots and looked shaky. However, the towering Finn would find his game again in the friendly confines of Bridgestone Arena, shining in Nashville’s 5-1 and 4-1 victories in Games Three and Four to knot the series. Then it all fell apart in Game Five in Pittsburgh, as Rinne was pulled after surrendering three first-period goals in a 6-0 shellacking. Yet it was hard to fault him for the concluding loss, as Pittsburgh outshot Nashville 29-27.

Penguins starting goalie Matt Murray recorded two straight shutouts to wrap up the final. The always-collected 23-year-old Canadian took fewer playoff games to record 20 wins (28) than anyone but Montreal Canadiens legends Bill Durnan (26) and Patrick Roy (27). After missing most of the playoffs due to injury, Murray took over the reins from veteran Marc-Andre Fleury in Game Three of the Eastern Conference final and didn’t miss a beat.

Previously unknown players also made names for themselves. Rookie Pittsburgh forward Jake Guentzel dazzled with 13 goals, one shy of Dino Ciccarelli’s single-playoff record of 14 with the 1981 Minnesota North Stars, and 21 points, which tied the rookie record shared by Ciccarelli and Ville Leino (Philadelphia, 2010). The even less-heralded Frederick Gaudreau of Nashville became the first player to get his first three career goals in the Cup final since 1994.

No new members joined the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club, which consists of players who have won the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, and World Championship gold. The last addition to the 27-man club was Anaheim’s Corey Perry, who captained Canada to the World Championship in 2016.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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