At 21, Sidney Crosby believed anything was possible for him and the Pittsburgh Penguins, that he would have a chance to end every NHL season by lifting the Stanley Cup in sweaty, joyful triumph, as he did in 2009.
Hockey and life took him on unexpected detours. He lost time to concussions that left him in a dark place and threatened his career. The Penguins couldn’t sustain their success, drifting through management and coaching changes that seemed headed nowhere as recently as the middle of this season.
Those memories flickered through his mind Sunday, as he led the Penguins to a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks that ended a suspenseful Cup Final in six games. Muscle memory curled his fingers around the bowl of the Cup as he hoisted it toward the ceiling of SAP Center to celebrate the franchise’s fourth championship.
“Having won seven years ago at a young age, you probably take it for granted a little bit,” he said. “You don’t think you do at the time, but it’s not easy to get to this point.”
He had never lost hope, but at 28 he had wondered if his time would ever come again. It came Sunday, as the speedy, defensively reliable Penguins overcame the physicality and resilience of the West champion Sharks. Crosby, who had a primary assist on Kris Letang’s decisive goal at 7 minutes 46 seconds of the second period — which came only 1:19 after San Jose had tied the score at 1-1 — and on Patric Hornqvist’s empty-netter with 62 seconds to play, won the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
“When you have so much turnover the last couple years like we had, it’s not easy to throw a bunch of guys together and develop that chemistry, that trust. It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “When you look at the group, how many new players we brought in, it was pretty special what we were able to do.”
They had a solid core that was supplemented by off-season acquisitions Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen and in-season acquisitions Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin. They promoted youngsters from the minor leagues, including forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary and goaltender Matt Murray. “The young kids that came up really changed the way we played,” said Mario Lemieux, a member of the Penguins’ 1991 and 1992 Cup teams and now the owner who kept the franchise in Pittsburgh. “We played a fast game, a great game.”
In addition, Mike Sullivan, who replaced Mike Johnston as coach on Dec. 12, made clear what he needed from his players and that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the excellence he knew they had within them. They showed that excellence through all four playoff rounds and especially flustered the Sharks with their breathtaking pace.
“Their speed, the pressure they put on with their speed. It’s not just their speed, they have good sticks too. They force you into quicker decisions,” Sharks Coach Peter DeBoer said. “They really challenge your execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds.”
That became obvious as the Final continued. “We thought we had the team, going through the teams we did in the West. It’s just tough right now,” veteran Joe Thornton said.
Pittsburgh’s defense was outstanding in blocking shots and preventing opponents from getting quality scoring chances against Murray. Daley, who suffered a broken ankle during the Penguins’ Eastern Conference final victory over Tampa Bay, was the first to get the Cup from Crosby, who appreciated what Daley was enduring.
From Daley it went to Pascal Dupuis, who had to retire because of health reasons, and then to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was injured and lost his job to Murray. Then to Chris Kunitz, a member of the Ducks’ 2007 Cup team and now a two-time champion with the Penguins, and on to 39-year-old Matt Cullen, defenseman Kris Letang and forward Phil Kessel. After being run out of Boston and Toronto, the victory was especially sweet to Kessel.
“It’s so special, he said of lifting the Cup. “You dream all your life for this and we got it done.”
Former Duck Ben Lovejoy acknowledged he nearly couldn’t control his emotions late in the game, and his voice was raspy afterward. “Things weren’t easy to start the year, the first couple months. We had a lot of learning to do and we were not at a place where we were all that good,” he said. “Mike Sullivan came in and we made a few roster moves. ... We were at a place where we had no choice but to listen, to buy in, and we did and look at where we are.”