Heading into Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins knew that they had a Stanley Cup celebration on home ice taken away from them in Game 5 by the superhuman exploits of San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones.
In Game 6, they made sure they finished the job.
Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin staked the Penguins to a 2-1 lead going into the third period, and Patric Hornqvist finished it off with an empty netter to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 winner at the SAP Center in San Jose, crowning them as Stanley Cup Champions for the fourth time in franchise history and seven years to the day since their last title. The Sharks were trying to become just the second team to win the Cup since 1938 after trailing 3-games-to-1, the last team being Toronto over Detroit in 1942 when the Maple Leafs actually rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to earn the Cup.
Sunday night’s game was a culmination of what was largely a dominant performance by the Penguins throughout this Stanley Cup Final. With the exception of a couple of periods, Pittsburgh was superior in all facets of the game during the entire series. They were faster, more aggressive, and hounded the Sharks’ puck carriers in all ends of the ice, rarely allowing second-chance opportunities in the defensive zone and forcing turnovers in both the neutral and offensive zones. Game 6 was no exception, as Pittsburgh outshot the Sharks 9-4 in the opening period, taking a 1-0 lead on Dumoulin’s power play goal on a point shot that squeaked through Jones, who finished with 24 saves for San Jose. Despite that goal being kind of a soft one that Jones would’ve wanted back, he made several saves in the first period that kept the game from getting out of hand.
In fact, that was a common theme throughout this Stanley Cup Final. Jones continually bailed out the Sharks after turnovers and defensive breakdowns, most notably in Game 5 when he made 44 saves to extend the series after San Jose fell into a 3-1 series deficit. Before the Stanley Cup Final, I didn’t have Jones as a top-end Conn Smythe contender, but if the Sharks had actually rallied to win this series, he would’ve been a strong favorite to win it.
However, it wasn’t meant to be for San Jose despite dominating the second period. Logan Couture tied the game for the Sharks, but Letang would give the Pens the lead for good, as they survived that middle period to take a 2-1 lead heading into the final period of this season. Pittsburgh saved their best defensive effort for last, as they held the Sharks to a paltry two shots on goal in the third period while maintaining their 2-1 lead until Hornqvist’s empty net goal. It was a microcosm of the entire series, as San Jose had plenty of shot attempts, but most of them didn’t get through as Pittsburgh continually got into shooting lanes and did an excellent job of back-checking to break up a few odd-man rush attempts for the Sharks. The Pens would have 67 more shots on goal than the Sharks during the Cup Final.
And when San Jose did get a shot through, Pens goalie Matt Murray was there to shut them down. Murray had 18 saves in Game 6 and finished 6-0 in this year’s playoffs following a loss and ended up with 15 wins in the postseason, tying the NHL record for most wins in one postseason by a rookie goalie. Not too shabby for a guy that didn’t see much action until Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt at the end of March. It also helped that they found a way to shut down San Jose’s power play. Entering the Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks converted on an incredible 27% of their power plays. Pittsburgh held them to one power play goal on 12 opportunities in the series.
Looking back on this season, nobody saw the Penguins in this position back in December when they weren’t even in a playoff position. However, things turned around when they fired head coach Mike Johnston and promoted Mike Sullivan to take his place. In fact, it was the same script that Pittsburgh followed during their last Stanley Cup title run in 2008-09 when they fired Michel Therrien and handed the reins over to Dan Bylsma, who ended up leading the Pens to that championship. Of the six coaches in NHL history who have won a Cup after being hired mid-season, two of them were Bylsma and Sullivan. In addition to the coaching change, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford also deserves credit for making bold moves via trades, bringing in Phil Kessel in the offseason as well as Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin.
Kessel, who was expected to click on a line with either Conn Smythe Trophy winner Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, found chemistry on the HBK line with Hagelin and center Nick Bonino. It also helped that Crosby returned to form as the season went on. Even though he only had three assists in the Cup Final, he was a force at both ends of the ice throughout the postseason, although I felt the Conn Smythe should’ve gone to Kessel. Starting in late February, Pittsburgh went on an absolute tear, rolling into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league, and after beating the New York Rangers and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first two rounds, this team made the transition from “team entering the playoffs on a roll” to “legit Stanley Cup contender” early in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Although they would outplay the Lightning for much of the series, they needed seven games to stave off the defending Eastern Conference Champions. Going into the Stanley Cup Final, some felt the Penguins might have finally met their match in San Jose (including myself), but Pittsburgh imposed their will throughout the league’s championship series, leading to the franchise’s fourth title in the last 25 years.
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