What a journey it was for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2015-16 season. Before the season, the Penguins were picked by most in the NHL media world as a viable playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. The season for the Penguins started 0-3 out of the gates, then rallied were 10-5 on November 11th then went 5-5-3 stood at 15-10-3 on December 12th. At that point Mike Johnston, the Penguins coach, was relieved of his job and up came Mike Sullivan to take over and Sidney Crosby, the Penguins Captain, had just 6 Goals – 13 Assists = 19 pts with a -6 in those 28 games. Some Penguin fans were referring to the 2008-09 season when the Penguins started 27-25-5, on February 14th Michel Therrien (now the coach in Montreal) was let go and in came Dan Bylsma. The Penguins went 18-3-4 and rode that hot streak through the postseason and on to the Stanley Cup. The thought was that if it could happen then it can happen again, but the question was: Could the same happen again in this season?
The Penguins entered 2016 at 18-15-4 and they were in danger of missing the postseason all together. Frankly, the Penguins were anything but a playoff team. But, after some moves in trades that got them Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Rob Scuderi and getting some players back from injuries, that’s when the Penguins started to take off. They did it to the tune of a 30-11-2 record in the season’s remaining 43 games. In total, the Penguins went 33-16-5 under Mike Sullivan, finished the season 48-26-8 and made the postseason, adding to the saying of: “It’s not how you start, It’s how you finish!”. The Big 3 of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel was preforming like people expected them too, along the was guys like Letang, Cullen, Kunitz, Hornqvist, Hagelin, Bonino all provided the secondary scoring and Goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury was his usual self.
In the postseason, the Penguins started out with their Metro Division Rivals; the NY Rangers in the 1st round of the playoffs in a rematch of the previous season when the Rangers beat the Penguins 4 games to 1. The Penguins had to start the postseason without Fleury as he was sidelined with an injury and had to go to the rookie Matt Murray. He was 9-2-1 with 2.00 GAA in regular season, but never obviously been in a Stanley Cup Playoff atmosphere. The Rangers and Penguins started the series by splitting the 1st 2 games of the series and then starting in Game 3 in New York, the Penguins swept 3 straight, bludgeoning Henrik Lundqvist knocking him out of games early and won the series 4 games to 1.
In Round 2, the Penguins faced without question the toughest challenge of their playoff run; the 56-18-8 Washington Capitals, the President’s Trophy winner with 120 points in the regular season and the favorite by most to win The Stanley Cup, because Alex Ovechkin was coming off a season that saw him score 50 goals for the 6th time in his career and their goalie Braden Holtby was having a Banner season, 48 wins (Tying Marty Brodeur’s Record), a 2.20 GAA, a .922 Save%. On paper this had the Caps written all over it and after the Capitals went on to win the 1st game over the Penguins 4-3 in OT and already talks were starting to raise. The Penguins however responded by winning the next 3 games to take a 3-1 series lead. They were looking like the Capitals were suppose to look but, instead the Caps had the look of a team lucky not to have been swept and now were faced with having to do something they’ve only done twice in their franchise’s history in 8 prior playoff series; “Comeback down 3-1”. Game 5, a gotta have it win for the Capitals if they wanted to hold off being eliminated in 5 games. The Penguins vying to close out the series in 5 and it was Washington coming out on top to force a 6th game. The Pens and Caps went into Game 6. Pittsburgh up 3-2 in the series, the Caps trying to push it to Game 7 at home. The Penguins started the game by jumping out to a 3-0 lead only to see the Capitals comeback to tie it 3-3 and send it to the 3rd Overtime period played in the series. The Penguins ended up winning it in Overtime, when Nick Bonino scored the clincher to win the series, beating the vaunted Capitals in 6 games.
In the Eastern Final, the Penguins faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference Champions, who were looking to get back to the final after losing in 6 to Chicago the year prior. The Lightning took the 1st game of the series then the Penguins won 2 then Tampa won 2 to take a 3-2 lead in the series. The Penguins were on the brink of elimination for the 1st time all postseason. However, in their history they had been down 3-2 in a series 13 time prior and had won 6 of those 13. That little fact gave Penguin Fans a bit of confidence. They went on to win game 6 to tie the series and force a game 7 at home. The Penguins History in Game 7’s going in was 7-7 (only the Boston Bruins have more losses in Game 7’s All-Time), 2-7 in Home Game 7’s, losing 4 straight and hadn’t won a Game 7 at home in 21 years. However, the Penguins overcame their own Game 7 at Home woes and won Game 7 to advance to the Final for the 1st time since 2009 when they beat Detroit in 7. The Penguins broke not only that 21 year Home Game 7 win drought but also that 4 game Home losing streak in Game 7’s.
In The Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins faced the San Jose Sharks, who were having their own fine run through the season and the playoffs. Beating The Kings in 5, the Predators in 7 and 6 and outing the St. Louis Blues in the Western Final. Going into that series a lot of people thought that San Jose was a slight favorite, I personally thought that The Penguins Cup Final Experience from playing in the final twice before in 08 and 09 was an advantage for them. They went on to take the 1st 2 games of the series at home. Looking at their history of being up 2-0 in a series you had every reason to think the Penguins were going to be fine shape. The series then shifted to San Jose for Game 3 and 4, with The Sharks in dire need of a win and after Logan Couture took to the media accusing Crosby of cheating. The Sharks and Penguins ended up splitting Games 3 and 4 in San Jose.
After 4 games in the series it was the Penguins leading 3-1 going into Game 5. In Pittsburgh’s 48 Season History in the NHL, this marked the 15th time they had led a series 3-1. 11 of the prior 14 times they went on to win the series. The Sharks going into Game 5 knew that to extend the series at least 1 more night had to win game 5 to take the series back to San Jose. The Sharks did just that, the series was 3-2 Pittsburgh going back to San Jose for Game 6. When the night had finished, The Penguins took the game 3-1, the series 4-2 and The Stanley Cup for the 4th time in their history and 1st since 2009. They join the Detroit Red Wings as the only 2 teams since 1991 to win the Stanley Cup 4 times.
It was 2009 repeated in 2016. Started a season 15-10-3, changing coaches from Johnston to Sullivan and going from almost missing the postseason, to going 33-16-5, ending the year at 48-26-8, winning The Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby winning The Conn Smythe as well as him and his teammates that were on that 2009 team that are still their winning their 2nd titles, Phil Kessel all those years in Toronto and all the punchlines that were levied on him, now for the 1st time in his career is crowned a Championship silencing his critics (at least for now). The most heartfelt moment when Pascal Dupuis got to raise the cup. His story forced into early retirement due to Blood Clots, not the way any player in any sport wants their career to end. Trevor Daley, injuries keeping him out of the final, he got to raise the cup. Matt Murray tying the NHL postseason record for most wins by a goalie in a postseason with 15, Mike Sullivan – 1 decade between Head coaching stints in Boston and Pittsburgh, He’s now a Stanley Cup Championship coach and the right coach for the Penguins.
If you are a Penguin fan you just saw your team go from almost out of the postseason to Champions for the 2nd time. In 2009, the coaching change came 57 games into that season as oppose to 28 this season. Under Dan Bylsma in 2009, you went 18-3-4 after a 27-25-5 start with Therrien, Under Mike Sullivan in 2016 you go 33-16-5 after a 15-10-3 start under Mike Johnston. You were able to ride both hot tears in the 2nd halves of the season all the way to the Stanley Cup. This Penguins season as previously stated is yet another example in sports that have long seasons like baseball, basketball and hockey that the season is journey not a short one. You always have time to turn things around. If the stars align just right you can pull it off and that they did. The Penguins are Stanley Cup Champions when it 1st looked like they weren’t gonna even make the postseason. Congratulation to the Penguins, what a team, what a ride, another example of playing it out.