This Penguins title was a spectacle of survival

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After the Penguins had finally conquered Bridgestone Arena, after the raucous Predators fans had thrown a final catfish and vacated the premises and allowed a few hundred Penguins supporters to roar, after the TV cameras had turned off and the floodgates had opened to friends and family, Phil Kessel exchanged huge hugs and grateful pounds of relief with his friends. Mark Streit cradled his baby in his arms for gleeful photo opportunities with whoever passed by. Exhausted Penguins conducted versions of what was surely the same celebratory interview in a bevy of languages.

And there, in the middle of it all, was Sidney Crosby.

Even after the glamour of the initial Cup hoist was over, the Penguins captain again held the trophy up for minutes on end as he slowly sauntered around and then through a throng of teammates, coaches, and onlooking media. You would forgive Crosby for feeling like it was his own, given his Penguins became the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-1998 Red Wings and he became the first player since Wayne Gretzky to lead the NHL in regular season goals then hoist the Cup since 1986-1987 — his birth year. While Crosby’s first title was a victory of revenge and redemption over those same Red Wings, and the second was a return to the summit after physical adversity, this was a triumph of sheer will. Pittsburgh survived their way to this championship.

It took a win in Game 6 to keep the Penguins from tying an NHL record for the longest postseason in league history, but in their 25th game of these playoffs, Pittsburgh delivered an unlikely victory. Beating the Predators in Nashville, where the home team had gone 9-1 before Sunday’s must-win Game 6? Winning a defensive struggle? It’s weird to think of a team with the silky skills of Crosby, Kessel, and Evgeni Malkin gritting their way to a championship, but once the shooting luck they rode to stay alive early in this series wore off, Pittsburgh turned in what was mostly an impressive defensive display, a stretch of simply hanging on.

“The way we were able to get better with every series, that was a big thing for us,” Crosby told ESPN.

Their biggest improvement over this trek came on defense once Matt Murray returned to the lineup from injury. Murray, who ran a .937 save percentage after taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury in the Ottawa series, became the first goalie to roll off consecutive shutouts in the Stanley Cup Finals since Chris Osgood (against the Penguins) in 2008.

Murray snuffed out repeated Preds chances from point-blank range, climaxing with a brilliant stop on a Colton Sissons breakaway in the second period. As much as Murray has been an afterthought at times — and there were certainly Penguins fans calling for Marc-Andre Fleury as recently as Game 5 — who has a better resume as a big-game goalie this early in their careers? Murray turned 23 last month and has two meaningful roles in Cup victories to his name already.

If he’s the Grant Fuhr to this team, well, that’s a compliment.

The Penguins didn’t make it easy for Murray or themselves. They committed each of the four penalties the referees called without generating one on Nashville themselves, including a pair of naive plays in their own zone which set up a 5-on-3 in the third period. Pittsburgh centermen lost 70 percent of face-offs through the first two periods, including a 4-for-22 stretch from none other than Crosby and Malkin.

Their defensemen unsurprisingly struggled to transition the puck out of their own zone, including a rash of mistakes from the Penguins rearguard during the first two shifts of the second period. One of those missteps required intervention from a third party, as a premature whistle wiped away what should have been the game’s first goal from Sissons.

It’s fair to wonder whether the Penguins should have needed a disallowed goal to stay within a goal of the Cup for the first 58 minutes of the contest. The Predators basically spent most of this game down to one useful defensive pairing, and while the duo of Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban were massive in stifling Malkin’s line, Nashville hung on for dear life the rest of the way. Their third duo of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber were basically left to rot on the bench after a horrific Game 5, while Roman Josi and the clearly-injured Ryan Ellis couldn’t keep up against Crosby, as Ellis finished with a CF% (Corsi percentage) of 38.9% in 21 minutes of 5-on-5 play.

With their superstars held off the scoreboard, it took notable efforts from the veterans lurking deeper in Pittsburgh’s forward corps to come away with a victory. Matt Cullen, possibly playing his last NHL game, had a CF% of 60.9 percent in five-on-five play. The 40-year-old was on the ice for 11 scoring chances in just over 14 minutes of even-strength work. The Cup-winning goal — the physical manifestation of the old cliche’ about how important it is to just to put the puck on (or near) the net — came on a well-timed rebound from Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist, a former Predators draftee and 30-goal scorer with Nashville, survived the inquest of a coaches’ challenge to etch his name in history with one of the prettiest ugly goals he’ll ever score.

It would be cruel to deny Hornqvist’s old team their role in what was a compelling finals. They rebounded beautifully from their brutal 6-0 loss in Pittsburgh in Game 5, with Pekka Rinne returning to form and stopping Pittsburgh’s first 27 shots on goal. Nobody expected the Predators to make it out of the first round of the playoffs (a stunning sweep of Chicago that exactly nobody predicted), let alone outplay the Penguins for large chunks of these Finals. It will be a long summer of wondering what might have happened if a couple of calls had swung their way, if an official had just managed to catch a glimpse of a puck slipping through Murray’s pads before blowing his whistle. It would have been impossible to begrudge them a Game 7 in Pittsburgh.

And yet, the Penguins did the sorts of things which were supposedly absent during their six-year stretch in between titles. They kept themselves alive by winning a pair of Game 7s after losing three consecutive Game 7s during those lean years. They chipped in with a cohesive defensive performance and weren’t dependent upon the hot stretches of their stars. They got great goaltending when they needed it. It might sound like a new story for such a star-laden team until you remember the Pens have clinched their Stanley Cups in the Crosby Era by winning 2-1, 3-1, and 2-0.

The Penguins and Crosby have been survivors all along.

Soon after the game, Crosby was asked by ESPN about the possibility of a three-peat. “I can’t imagine how difficult that is knowing how difficult it was to get to this point,” said Crosby.” You got the feeling as Crosby skated around with the Cup in his hands that for this night the future Hall of Famer was happy to celebrate just being the last team alive.

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