Back-to-Back: A Look at the 2015-17 Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back Stanley Cups
As a fan of Sidney Crosby, I was very elated when he and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. It was a payback moment; they defeated the very team who bested them a year prior: the Detroit Red Wings. Also, it was inevitable; Crosby was already proving that the hype surrounding him prior to being drafted was immensely justified. However, as seasons passed, the Penguins wouldn't come close to retutning to that very pinnacle, and that led to some doubt from talking heads regarding Crosby's ability to win a second Cup. Even I started to wonder if 2009 would be his only hit.
Then came the 2015-16 season. The Penguins were coming off losing in the opening round to the New York Rangers, and as I recall, they started slow that year, but turned it up in December and never looked back. The Penguins finished with a 48-26-8 record and 104 points, which was good enough to finish at a distant second behind the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 10th straight season.
Crosby led the Penguins that year, because of course he does; 36 goals, 49 assists, 85 points. Defenseman Kris Letang was second with 67 points (16 of them being goals), but right behind both players was a big piece they acquired during the offseason: Phil Kessel. Kessel began his NHL career with the Boston Bruins before ending up spending six years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but in 2015, the Leafs traded Kessel to Pittsburgh, and in his first year as a Penguin, he scored 26 goals--only Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (the latter having won the 2009 Conn Smythe) had more goals.
Pittsburgh's postseason began with the team finally getting payback over the very team who ousted them two years straight: the New York Rangers. The Rangers reached the Eastern Conference Final in 2014 and 2015 (the former year seeing them reach the Stanley Cup Final) at the expense of the Penguins, but in 2016, the Pens took down the Rangers in a five-game Metropolitan Semifinal. This would set up a Metropolitan Final between the Penguins and the Capitals--Crosby vs Ovechkin. As we all know, the Penguins had a history of torturing the Caps in the playoffs, and that would continue in 2016, as they ousted the Caps in six games, capped off by Nick Bonino's overtime series-clincher in Game Six. The Penguins reached the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013, and it went much better than that year, as they won a seven game thriller over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Penguins faced off against the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final, and I remember San Jose's run very well. It was long overdue for the Sharks, as they had never reached the Final despite practically reaching the playoffs almost every year in their existence. Also, this came a year after missing the playoffs in 2015, and two years after being reverse swept in 2014, so this was a huge feather in the Sharks' cap. It was a pretty close Final; the Pens won the first two games by scores of 3-2 and 2-1, with Game Two being an overtime win thanks to (who else?) Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh lost Game Three in overtime, but took Game Four to earn the chance to clinch at home. They would not do so in Game Five, but Game Six would be different, as the Pens won, 3-1, to capture the Cup.
Sidney Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy; he had 19 points in 24 games during that year's playoffs. Only six of them were goals, though one of them was an OT goal in Game Two of the Cup Final. Despite this, it was actually Phil Kessel who led the team in goals (10) and points (22) during the playoffs, while Evgeni Malkin was close behind both players with 18 points (6 G/12 A). Despite Marc-Andre Fleury leading the way in net during the regular season, it was Matt Murray at the helm during the playoffs, starting 21 of Pittsburgh's 24 games. Murray's numbers: 15-6-2, 2.08 GAA, .923 SV%, and a shutout. Jeff Zatkoff had the one other win in net for the Penguins, while Fleury had the least amount of ice time.
The Penguins clinched their fourth Stanley Cup on Sunday evening, June 12, 2016. We all watched them win the Cup on worldwide television, and afterwards, the Penguins dared to ask all of us:
"Wanna see us do it again?"
The 2016-17 season was a special one for the Penguins; not only were they entering that year as the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but it was also the team's 50th anniversary. In fact, it was the 50th anniversary of the league doubling in size with the addition of six new franchises, with the Penguins being one of the six who joined the league. It's hard enough to win one Stanley Cup, let alone back-to-back, but the Penguins did it in 1991 and 1992, their first two Cups in franchise history. However, entering the 2016-17 season, winning back-to-back was nearly impossible; it hadn't been done in nearly 20 years. Yet this is how the Penguins somehow did it.
Similar to the previous year, the Penguins started off a bit slow, but they really picked it up in December and never looked back. They slightly improved from their previous campaign; winning 50 games and finishing with 111 points, another year finishing in second place in the Metropolitan Division. The distance was just a bit closer this time, only seven points behind the Capitals, who won the Presidents' Trophy for the second straight year. The Penguins qualified for the playoffs for the 11th straight year, and this was vital, because that was the year that the Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1989-90 season. As a result, the Penguins became the new owners of the longest active playoff streak in the NHL, and it became the longest in sports when the NBA's San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs in 2020.
The three usual suspects from 2016--Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel--all led the way for the Penguins. However, there's another player I want to talk about, a player who I've really become a fan of over the recent years: Jake Guentzel. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Guentzel was drafted by the Penguins in 2013 (the same draft that gave us Nathan MacKinnon), but wouldn't make his NHL debut until the 2016-17 season. His regular season was quite impressive: 16 goals, 17 assists, 33 points in 40 games. Had he played a full season, Guentzel would have most likely finished with close to 70 points, which is definitely not bad at all.
So when did Guentzel first get my attention? During the Metropolitan Semifinals against the Columbus Blue Jackets, that's when. It was an easy series win for the Pens, only needing five games to oust Columbus, but it was in Game Three of that series where Guentzel made his mark. A hat trick in Game Three, including the overtime winner. Absolutey amazing! So with that, the Penguins faced off against the Capitals for the second straight year. Another chapter of this amazing rivalry was written that year, and again, it went the way of the Penguins. This time, they needed the full seven games to send Oveckhin out empty-handed again, with the Pens shutting out Washington on the road in Game Seven.
The Eastern Conference Final pitted the Penguins against the Ottawa Senators, and yeah, this one ended up being an absolute classic. Ottawa actually took Game One in OT, but the Pens came back with a 1-0 shutout win in Game Two. The Sens took Game Three at home, but the Penguins would win the next two, including a 7-0 home win in Game Five, though Ottawa would take Game Six. Game Seven was absolutely legendary; it was 2-2 after regulation, and remained the same after 80 minutes. Never mind the fact that this was Ottawa's best run since reaching the Cup Final a decade prior, but they had an equal shot of actually returning to the Final. While I was pulling for Pittsburgh to win this, I was prepared to be happy for Ottawa should they pull this off. However, Chris Kunitz decided to put the kibosh on that dream with one shot past Craig Anderson. Fitting, considering he was part of the Anaheim Ducks' 2007 Cup win over the Sens, and ten years later, he plagued Ottawa again. Goodbye, good night, series over.
The Penguins returned to the Stanley Cup Final and faced off against another Cup Final newcomer: the Nashville Predators. The Predators had been on the rise for a few years, and their 2017 run was the tip of the iceberg. They entered the playoffs as a Wild Card, but they managed to flat out dismantle the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1. The Preds won a six-game Central Division Final over the St. Louis Blues to reach the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history, where they defeated the Anaheim Ducks in six games to reach the Cup Final for the first time in their brief franchise history. This would be an amazing Final, and it started out with the Pens winning the first two games in dominant fashion. However, it was a different story when the series switched to Nashville, as the Preds had no problem winning Games Three and Four to even things up. The Pens took Game Five, 6-0, moving one win away from a successful title defense.
Game Six was quite a game to remember. For one, I vividly remember PK Subban scoring for the Preds, but that goal ended up disallowed due to the Preds being offsides. It remained scoreless after 20 minutes, and was the same after 40 minutes. It was somehow scoreless heading into the final three minutes of regulation, but despite this, I never thought overtime would happen. Something told me that this would be settled in regulation somehow, and my gut ended up being right. With 95 seconds left in regulation, Patric Hornqvist (who played six seasons in Nashville) shot the puck off the back of Preds' goalie Pekka Rinne, and it went in, breaking the scoreless tie. From that point, I knew it was over, because Nashville couldn't buy a goal after Game Four. Rinne was pulled, but that only allowed Carl Hagelin to put it in the empty net to make it 2-0, and with that, in front of a riled up crowd in Tennessee's capital city, the Penguins repeated.
For the second straight year, Sidney Crosby captured the Conn Smythe Trophy, and again, this was despite not leading the team in points. Crosby had 27 points (8 G/19 A) during this run, but it was one behind Evgeni Malkin's 28 points (10 G/18 A). Neither player led in goals, that honor went to Jake Guentzel, who had 13 goals in 25 games played. Hornqvist's Cup clincher was his fifth for that year's playoffs, and as for Kunitz, he only had two goals during that run, with one of them being the double-overtime goal against the Sens. Regarding goaltending, Murray and Fleury actually shared the net during that run, with Murray winning nine games while Fleury won seven. They also combined for five shutouts; Murray had three of them (with two of them being Games Five and Six of the Cup Final), while Fleury had two.
It had been 19 years since a team won back-to-back Stanley Cups; prior to this, the Detroit Red Wings were the last team to win back-to-back Cups, doing so in 1997 and 1998. The Penguins completed their defense of the Stanley Cup on Sunday evening, June 11, 2017, with this Cup being their fifth in franchise history. They are tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the most Stanley Cups won by non-Original Six teams, and it was the second time that the Pens won back-to-back Cups. The Penguins long run from 2015-17 was quite legendary; again, they did what appeared to be impossible during that time. If I had to pick which year I enjoyed more, I think I'd have to go with 2017 because that run had just a bit more drama, though 2016 was good as well. In any event, the Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships were absolutely epic and legendary; just an amazing marathon run from quite a talented franchise.
Excellent report. Professional and detailed. Great job!
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