Column: Penguins beat Predators to claim second straight Stanley Cup title

Sunday was a big day in the world of Sports. (June 12, 2017)

The Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs, gleamed as it sat on the table to Sidney Crosby’s right. Near his left hand, within easy patting distance, was the Stanley Cup. It had been polished to blinding brilliance Sunday afternoon but had become smudged by eager fingers and smooching lips in the moments after the Pittsburgh Penguins claimed it again with a 2-0 victory over the Nashville Predators that ended the Stanley Cup Final in six entertaining games.

It was déjà vu all over again for Crosby and for the Penguins, him winning the Conn Smythe two years in a row and them winning the Cup, making them the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings prevailed in 1997 and again in 1998. But it was anything but old hat for Crosby, who began this season in September by being chosen the MVP of Canada’s World Cup victory and ended his 105th game by skating around Bridgestone Arena with hockey’s biggest prize.

What motivates him after all these years, all these trophies, and now his third Cup championship? Simple. “This feeling right here,” he said, his view taking in both trophies. “You can’t match this. That’s what it’s all about.”

The Penguins clinched the franchise’s fifth title — all won on the road — when Patric Hornqvist pounced on the carom of a shot by Justin Schultz that had struck the end boards. Hornqvist, a former Predator, banked a shot off the body of Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne and into the net with 95 seconds left in the third period, and Carl Hagelin clinched it by scoring into an empty net with 14 seconds to play, making the Penguins the first team to win a road game in this final.


At the end, the Penguins poured onto the ice in pure glee, tested by the gutsy Predators but standing above everyone else. “You can’t describe it,” Schultz said. “When that final buzzer rang it was the best feeling in the world. It’s crazy.”

For Penguins forward Bryan Rust, the back-to-back titles had special meaning. He was a Red Wings fan growing up in Michigan and to be linked to their 1997 and 1998 teams carried great weight for him. “I’m getting chills just thinking about it,” he said. “There’s a reason why it doesn’t happen that often. It’s incredibly hard.”

What might have been the most surprising aspect of the final was that the Predators were supposed to have the better goaltending and a better defense corps, especially because Penguins standout defenseman Kris Letang had undergone neck surgery in early April and left his team without a minutes-gobbling, stud defenseman. But it was Penguins goalie Matt Murray who shut out the Predators for the final 123 minutes and 23 seconds of the series, aided by that supposedly weak defense. “Not too shabby for a ‘D’ corps that wasn’t very good, everyone said,” Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole said as he celebrated among the crowd of players, team executives and family members on the ice.

It was a sad ending for the Predators, who were seeded No. 8 in the West before they made the longest playoff journey in their history and lit up a town and a region. They believed they had scored early in the second period, when Colton Sissons poked in the rebound of a shot by Filip Forsberg, but referee Kevin Pollock immediately waved it off on the basis that he had blown the whistle before the puck entered the net. The decision stood despite the jeers of the Predators’ loud and passionate fans.

“There’s human error in every sport,” Predators captain Mike Fisher said, but coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t so philosophical.

“It’s more difficult,” he said of losing on that disputed call. “Our guys’ hearts are heavy right now. We hate the result but our guys gave a pretty good effort, and it’s difficult for us right now because our sights were set on winning the championship, like anybody’s would be when you get to this point, and for that it’s disappointing.”

Crosby hasn’t known much disappointment lately, and his latest triumph cements his status among the game’s greats. “You would have to think so,” said Chris Kunitz, now a four-time Cup champion a decade after he won with the 2007 Ducks. “The game changes and plays with more speed and he collects more points and has more awareness on the ice. It’s something unbelievable to be a part of, to be on the ice with a guy with such character and talent.”

Crosby got the Cup first, as the team captain, and passed it first to defenseman Ron Hainsey, who had played 907 regular-season games before he played a playoff contest. From there, it went to 40-year-old Matt Cullen, who’s contemplating retirement, to Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Mark Streit and backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.


“You have a small window to play and to have a career, and I feel fortunate,” Crosby said. “But I also understand how difficult it is, so you just want to try to make the best of it.”

He and the Penguins did that. Again.