Let’s be honest, Penguins fans. You were getting very nervous after Game 4 wondering if your team was going to win it all again. The worrying was understandable. Nashville was the healthier and livelier team. Even if Matt Murray was going to bounce back from his two dismal performances in Games 3 and 4, it seemed like the Penguins were too battered and bruised to make up the difference.
Along with that, Nick Bonino would be done for the rest of the series for what turned out to be a fractured fibula while blocking a shot in Game 2. Plus, it was beyond evident that Connor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist were nowhere near their best due to their own list of ailments. This resulted in Mike Sullivan putting from unleashing Pittsburgh’s biggest strength of spreading out the talent of his best forwards on separate lines that led them to their Stanley Cup in 2016.
Gone were the days when Evgeni Malkin can “Andre the Giant” the defense as he carried the puck into the offensive zone and then score from two inches. Gone were the days where Phil Kessel could feast upon bottom six forwards and bottom pairing defenseman while the oppositions best players have to gang up on Crosby somehow. Now, these two star players had no choice but to be linemates this postseason. That’s not a bad proposition as the two have had 50.9% of the adjusted even strength shot attempts go in their favor during the regular season and 52.4% of them go in their favor during the postseason.
However, defenses can now gang up on the top six in the conventional way most NHL defenses gang up on the oppositions best players. The one thing that makes Pittsburgh unique is gone. I mean, who really is going to put Roman Josi on Carter Rowney and Josh Archibald?!
Certainly not Nashville’s Peter Laviolette, who was coaching in his third Stanley Cup Final series. The former Hurricanes and Flyers head honcho wanted to beat his demons and defeat a Penguins team that were clearly on the ropes. Then, Game 5 happened and the series turned on its head once again. Unlike the first two games of the series in Pittsburgh, the Penguins genuinely outplayed Nashville and never took their foot off the gas pedal.
The reason for such a swing in momentum was that Connor Sheary returned to the top line with Sydney Crosby and this time played with Jake Guentzel instead of Bryan Rust. The two future pillars of the Penguins generated well over 53% puck possession when they played with Crosby during the regular season and it showed greatly in the last two games of the series. After only having 44.1% of the shot attempts go in his favor the first two games, Crosby’s puck possession skyrocketed to 56.0% in the last two games.
Meanwhile, Nashville’s influence from Viktor Arvidsson was clearly waning. With Ryan Johansen on the mend the rest of the postseason due to a leg hematoma, it meant that Arvidsson had to be separated from the top line to better spread out the opposition’s defenses as lesser talented call-ups were forced to play the rest of the way for the Predators. In Games 1 through 4, Arvidsson playing with James Neal and Mike Fisher seemed to work out to the tune of 52.7% puck possession. The number absolutely plummeted once Pittsburgh got its stuff together with a ghastly 39.6% ratio.
Lastly, Filip Forsberg’s presence in these Stanley Cup finals was not strong enough by no fault of his own. During the series, he continued to dominate the Penguins with his puck possession prowess at even strength. In his 81:03 of even strength time on ice, the Swede was on the ice for 87 shot attempts for and 53 against. Only linemate Pontus Aberg and defenceman P.K. Subban, already a world class player that shouldn’t have his reputation ruined from this postseason, performed better. However, Forsberg’s efforts were only presented with one goal for and two goals against at even strength. Not only did he earn and underserved plus-minus rating in the red, but he also had his shooting percentages from both ends reduced that his influence was null-in-void.
With Pekka Rinne also showing signs that he was nothing more than a 34-year old league average goaltender instead of this year’s Conn Smythe winner, the comeback was complete for Pittsburgh and now they are the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions since the Steve Yzerman-Scotty Bowman Detroit Red Wings.
With the NHL celebrating 100 years, it’s fitting that not only the Penguins won their historically high fifth Stanley Cup but also do so while having massive spurts of being the worst of the two teams in the final. It’s just how hockey works too much of the time. Only baseball rivals the sport’s unpredictability and how such events shape its very fabric. Unlike baseball, hockey had to force itself into being a salary cap driven league when finances were reduced to comparably poor standards. That’s where the random acts of weird variance increase dramatically.
This season more than ever felt like the NHL was in the middle of a seismic transformation than what it was even last season. Chicago and Los Angeles are decaying franchises while Toronto and Edmonton are ready to seize their opportunity to be contenders for a long time. However, there didn’t seem to be any “win now or bust” franchises that were so profound beyond the Caps and these Penguins.
Las Vegas’ presence as the NHL’s soon-to-be 31st franchise certainly had an impact on that, but the turnover is certainly palpable when you smell it. Now, we get to witness what could be the most chaotic summer the NHL has seen in a while. With an entry draft and summer free agent class expected to be one of the poorest in recent memory, trades and swindlings with Vegas’ general manager George McPhee could determine many teams’ fates for years to come. Whether the Penguins will be affected can only be determined as to how Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Murray continue to produce at an elite rate.
There is no denying Pittsburgh’s status as a “Conference Finals or bust” franchise is here to stay for a while. Not only is that aforementioned core still not past their sell-by date for another two years or so, but every role player on the team that was passed 30 is expected to leave the team. Yes, GM Jim Rutherford will have to pay up for Sheary, Brian Dumoulin and Schultz but Sheary, Guentzel and maybe Zach Aston-Reese are such futures of the franchise up front, they will make Crosby’s, Malkin’s and Kessel’s careers an extra three to five years longer than normal.
Still, with the salary cap expected to hit $75 million, Pittsburgh will only have to hope an expensive contract comes out of their books in the expansion draft. If it ends up being Fleury, as the narrative keeps being painted that way, it could give Rutherford a guesstimated $10 million to work with for two veteran defensemen and maybe one forward depending on how the franchise feels about Aston-Reese right now. Either way, the world is Rutherford’s oyster and that makes life miserable for this Capitals fan.