PITTSBURGH – Marc-Andre Fleury’s sprawling save on Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom in the final moments of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals was supposed mark the end of one potential dynasty and the beginning of another.
Yet it took the Penguins and star Sidney Crosby seven years to provide a bookend moment to that giddy night at Joe Louis Arena, the breakthrough coming in San Jose last June when they closed out the Sharks in six games to capture the franchise’s fourth title.
Ten months after that joyous flight back home and the victory parade jammed with half a million fans, Crosby and company are back for more.
There are 16 teams alive for the Stanley Cup when the 2017 playoffs begin on Wednesday night. Only one, however, enters as the defending champion. Only one can become the first club since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to capture consecutive Cups.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons (it hasn’t happened),” said Crosby, the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP last season. “You need so many things to go right. There are so many things you have to overcome. That’s why it’s not easy to do in back to back years.”
It’s more likely that things tend to fall apart. Twice since 1998 the reigning Cup champs didn’t even make the playoffs the following season (Carolina in 2007 and the Los Angeles Kings in 2015). Seven times the champs went home after the first round. Only three managed to make it all the way back to the final the next year.
“We have to find a way to change that trend,” Crosby said.
While the Penguins, Los Angeles and Chicago have created a monopoly on hockey’s most prized possession winning seven of the last eight Cups, finding the right mix of talent, grit and puck luck to do it in consecutive years is a formula no one has figured out since Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings did it nearly 20 years ago.
Yzerman, a Hall of Fame player and currently the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, can’t quite put a finger on why it hasn’t happened since the Red Wings swept Washington in 1998.
“I think the salary cap plays a part of it,” Yzerman said. “The timing of contracts coming up and things.”
It wasn’t that way back in Yzerman’s prime, when teams could spare no expense to keep their core group together. It’s how Montreal in the 1970s and the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s were able to turn Cup-sipping celebrations into annual rites of spring.
Now general managers need creative math, an ability to find the right spare parts to fill in the gaps and a steady hand at the helm.
Pittsburgh appeared to be in good shape in 2010, easing by Ottawa in six games in the opening round and taking a 3-2 lead over Montreal in the conference semifinals. Then Canadians goaltender Jaroslav Halak got hot, forward Mike Cammallieri did too and Montreal rallied to win in seven games.
If former Red Wings forward Kirk Maltby is being honest, even he’s a little surprised the ’98 team remains the last to recapture the magic.
“I can’t really answer the why because I guess the why really is, it’s extremely difficult to win it one time, let alone back to back,” Maltby said. “If you can’t stay healthy, especially your big guys, or if you don’t have depth it hurts you.”
Yzerman is bullish on the Penguins, who put together the league’s second-best record despite a mishmash of injuries along the blue line and Evgeni Malkin’s extended absence late in the season. Pittsburgh persevered behind Crosby’s NHL-high 44 goals and most of the familiar faces are back in time for the playoffs, Malkin included.
“It’s a tough battle in the East but I think they’re a fantastic team,” Yzerman said. “If they can get their guys healthy, I think Sidney is playing the best hockey of his entire career. They can win but it’s tough.”
Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen’s rookie season coincided with Detroit’s ’98 title. He helped Carolina to the Cup in 2006 but was traded to the Rangers in the offseason and watched from afar as the Hurricanes stumbled. He could have retired last summer with his name on the Cup for a second time but decided to give it one more shot, confident the Penguins had what it takes to make another run.
There’s nothing Cullen’s seen over the last six months that’s made him reconsider.
“For this group we’ve kind of come through the season and managed the season pretty impressively,” Cullen said. “We feel really good about where we’re at. We’ve got some bodies back in the lineup we’ve been missing for a while. We enter the postseason pretty confident with what we have here and if we play our best hockey, we have a good chance.”