PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz stood shoulder to shoulder at center ice as midnight approached, crowd on its feet, Prince of Wales Trophy in hand. Another shot at the Stanley Cup in the offing.
On the surface, it could have been a scene ripped from 2008 when the longtime Pittsburgh Penguin teammates earned their first crack at a championship together, the one that was supposed to be the launching pad for a dynasty.
A closer look at the weary, grateful smiles told a different story.
This team has learned over the last decade that nothing can be taken for granted. Not their individual greatness or postseason success, even for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises. Not the cohesion it takes to survive the crucible of the most draining championship chase in professional team sports or the mental toughness (along with a dash of luck) needed to stay on top once you get there.
So Crosby paused in the giddy aftermath of Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the helter-skelter Eastern Conference finals to do something the two-time Hart Trophy winner almost never does. He took stock of the moment, aware of how fleeting they can be.
“Every series you look at, the margin for error is so slim,” Crosby said. “We’ve just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up. We trust in that and we believe in that and whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence. We’ve done it different ways, which is probably our biggest strength.”
And they’ll have to do it one more time in the final against swaggering Nashville if they want to become the first team in nearly 20 years and the first in salary-cap era to win back-to-back championships.
It’s a daunting task. When the puck drops in Game 1 on Monday night in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be playing in their 108th game in the last calendar year, and that doesn’t count another half dozen for those who played in the World Cup of Hockey and a handful of exhibition games.
Pittsburgh, however, has survived to do something even Chicago and Los Angeles – who have combined for five of the seven Cups awarded since 2010 – could not in putting itself in positon for a repeat.
Credit coach Mike Sullivan’s ever-prescient tinkering with the lineups, including his decision to throw Kunitz back into the fray with Crosby as Game 7 wore on, an experiment that ended with Crosby feeding Kunitz for the winner 5:09 into the second overtime .
Credit goaltender Matt Murray, thrust back into the lineup when Marc-Andre Fleury’s hot play that helped carry the Penguins through the opening two rounds finally cooled.
Credit a maturity – or maybe it’s wisdom – from the team leaders who watched the first half of the decade come and go with plenty of gaudy regular-season numbers but no Cup banners to join the one they captured in 2009.
Pinning down what changed is difficult. General manager Jim Rutherford’s ability to remake the team on the fly to build one of the fastest lineups in the league helped. So did Sullivan’s ability to cut through the noise when he replaced the professorial Mike Johnston in December 2015.
Yet the Penguins understand there’s something else at work too, a resiliency and accountability they lacked while falling to lower-seeded teams every year from 2010-14.
“I believe that the resolve and the resilience of this team is the strength of this team,” Sullivan said.
Both were on full display in Game 7.
Kunitz, who missed the first-round series against Columbus with a lower-body injury, returned to see himself bumped from the first line to the fourth, scored his first two goals of the playoffs. Conor Sheary, a blurring revelation last spring who suddenly found himself a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 against the Senators, returned to set up Kunitz’s first goal .
Justin Schultz, who has assumed the as the minute-hogging, puck-moving defenseman role held by the injured Kris Letang, returned from his own health scare and scored a go-ahead goal in the third period.
If the Penguins were a force of nature last spring while earning the franchise’s fourth Cup, this one is more of a throwback. More blue collar. More anonymous.
Some of the key cogs that helped Pittsburgh get to this point – rookie forward Jake Guentzel, 37-year-old playoff newcomer Ron Hainsey and career grinder Scott Wilson – weren’t even around last spring. Yet they and so many others not named Crosby or Malkin have become equal partners in pursuit of a title.
“This year it’s been back and forth, it’s been tough,” Kunitz said. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night.”
It hasn’t been pretty. So what? Perhaps the biggest sign of the team’s growth is it has abandoned the pursuit of style points for something far more tangible. Like a 34-pound piece of hardware, one Pittsburgh has no intention of handing off anytime soon.