Saturday, 28 May 2016
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Season of Renewal Began in Mid-December
PITTSBURGH — In the waning minutes of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the N.H.L.’s Eastern Conference finals, the decibel level from the delirious crowd here reached 123. That is a little lower than the level of a fighter jet taking off from an aircraft carrier.
The Penguins’ rookies, most notably Bryan Rust and Matt Murray, played their part in securing the win. But as the team looks ahead to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the San Jose Sharks here on Monday night, the stars are delivering, too.
Sidney Crosby, the Penguins’ captain, scored the winning goal in three of the Penguins’ four victories over Tampa Bay.
Crosby did not score a goal Thursday night; Rust scored Pittsburgh’s two goals. But Crosby led all players with six shots on goal and eight shot attempts and had the most time on ice among forwards, playing 23 minutes.
The Penguins are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the fifth time in franchise history, and the first time since their title run in 2009.
“I thought it was incredible,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said of the final minutes. “It was the loudest that I’ve heard a building in all the years that I’ve been associated with this league, to the point where we had to scream to the players on who was up next.”
Few could have imagined the Penguins would be in this position six months ago. The fans were disillusioned. Pittsburgh had a poor start and was near the bottom of the league in scoring.
So was Crosby. As one of the league’s biggest stars, he has been relied on by the Penguins, and by the N.H.L.’s marketers and television partners, to produce. But through the first 18 games of the season, he had only two goals and a handful of assists.
In mid-December, the changes began. Sullivan, who had joined the organization a few months earlier to lead the team’s top minor league affiliate, was promoted to coach the Penguins. Pittsburgh General Manager Jim Rutherford then overhauled the team through trades and minor league call-ups. It worked.
The Penguins roared back in the standings, finishing second in the Eastern Conference in points. They scored the third-most goals in the N.H.L. Crosby went on a torrid scoring run and ended up third in points.
“It wasn’t easy getting to this point,” Crosby said after Game 7.
Against Tampa Bay, the Penguins had to contend with the brilliant play of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who relieved an injured Ben Bishop in Game 1 and made some marvelous saves on Crosby and the rest of Pittsburgh’s lineup. But the Penguins outshot the Lightning by 39-17 in Game 7 and 269-179 in the series.
Get the big sports news, highlights and analysis from Times journalists, with distinctive takes on games and some behind-the-scenes surprises, delivered to your inbox every week.
The Penguins have numerous weapons, including Phil Kessel.
Criticized as aloof and lazy while playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kessel was traded to the Penguins last summer. Like many of his teammates, Kessel, a five-time 30-goal scorer, struggled at times this season.
The playoffs have been Kessel’s redemption. Among the players going to the Stanley Cup finals, he is second in goals and fourth in points. He collected four goals and two assists in the conference finals against Tampa Bay.
“I’m filled with joy,” Kessel said of his renewal.
Evgeni Malkin was also important in the series against the Lightning. He ended the round with a five-game points streak, collecting assists on both of Rust’s goals in the series-winning game.
But it was Crosby’s overtime winner in Game 2 and a superb one-against-three goal in a Game 6 victory that kept Pittsburgh’s season alive.
For Crosby, it has been seven years since he lifted the Stanley Cup as a 21-year-old. Then, it seemed as if every team would have to go through Pittsburgh to pursue the Cup. But Crosby missed most of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons with concussions.
“Maybe what could have been?” Crosby said when asked about the long stretch between his finals appearances.
Crosby and Malkin have been a one-two punch for a decade. They are third and fourth on the franchise’s career points list, behind Mario Lemieux, who is now an owner of the team, and Jaromir Jagr.
After the win, Lemieux, who won the Stanley Cup twice as a player, made his way through the crowded locker room to Crosby’s stall.
“Great game,” Lemieux told Crosby. Both of them beamed. With four more wins, Crosby will have as many championships as Lemiuex had in his playing days.
The Penguins will now turn their attention to the Sharks. Both teams rely on speed to pressure opponents and keep the puck moving toward the offensive zone.
“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way.”
Defenseman Ben Lovejoy put it more succinctly.
“It will be a battle,” he said.
Correction: May 27, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of goals the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby scored in the first 18 games of this season. He scored two goals, not one.
Correction: May 27, 2016
An earlier version of this article described incorrectly Phil Kessel’s performance. Among the players going to the Stanley Cup finals, he is fourth — not fifth — in points.