After a back-and-forth battle and a goaltending showcase for the ages, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally broke a 0-0 tie with the Nashville Predators with 1:35 remaining in the third period of Game Six on Sunday night and added a empty netter with seconds left to take a 2-0 win and capture the 2017 Stanley Cup title. The Penguins successfully defended their 2016 championship to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back titles. It is the first time in the salary cap era of NHL hockey that any team has won consecutive Stanley Cups.
On their road to another championship, the Penguins entered as the #2 seed out of the Atlantic Division and wiped out the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets in just five games. Pittsburgh then took on the top-seeded Washington Capitals, knocking out the President’s Trophy-winners for the second straight season, in a hard-fought seven-game series. The Ottawa Senators, out of the Atlantic Division, also took the Penguins to a Game Seven in the Eastern Conference final, but again the Penguins were victorious. The Stanley Cup Final was a face-off against an unexpected opponent, a Nashville Predators team that had entered as the second wild card team in the Western Conference and the 16th-seed overall, but swept the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks and beat both the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks in six games. The performance of the Predators and the enthusiasm of the city of Nashville should not be understated and will likely be how many remember the 2017 playoffs. However, the Penguins were too much for the Predators, outscoring Nashville 17-4 in their four wins, including a shutout in the series-clinching win on the road.
The Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs, was given to Sidney Crosby. The captain of the team and the NHL’s leading scorer, Crosby notched 8 goals and 19 assists on his way to the title. Crosby became just the third player to ever win back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophy’s, joining Bernie Parent and Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Other standouts of the playoff run include Crosby’s partner in crime, Evgeni Malkin, who outscored the captain by one point to lead all postseason scorers with ten goals and 18 assists. Both goalies, veteran Marc-Andre Fleury and rookie Matt Murray were phenomenal, with Fleury winning nine games while Murray was sidelined, and the youngster taking over to win the final seven and take home his second Stanley Cup despite still being a rookie. Murray posted a .931 save percentage and 1.87 goals against average in 10 appearance as he continues to develop a legacy as a clutch performer. Chris Kunitz lifted the Stanley Cup for the fourth time, the most among active players, while on the flip side trade deadline acquisition Ron Hainsey, who at 35 years old had never even played in the postseason, made the most of his first appearance. Justin Schultz was incredible as the surrogate leader of the defense for the sidelined Kris Letang, as he fought through injuries himself and posted 12 points during the Cup run. And who could forget rookie Jake Guentzel, who led the team with 13 goals, including an amazing five game-winners. In an ironic twist, Patric Hornqvist the final pick of the NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators in the same year that Crosby went #1, got the game winning goal to deny his former franchise their first ever Stanley Cup.
The frightening part for NHL fans is that, unlike their dynastic rivals in Chicago among others, the Penguins should remain largely intact heading into 2017-18. Fleury will likely be gone, but is no longer the starter anyway. Several veteran defenseman and bottom-six forwards could go as well, but Pittsburgh will for the most part return at full strength in October as they look to keep this incredible streak going. Crosby is still just 29 years old and he and the Penguins are far from finished. Congratulations to the 2017 Stanley Cup champs from the staff at PHR.