Monday, June 13, 2016

Penguins Take Flight, Win Fourth Stanley Cup

"You grow up thinking about this stuff, getting to raise that Cup," Murray said. "[The Cup] was a lot heavier than I thought it was. What a moment. I'll never forget this day for the rest of my life."
The Pittsburgh Penguins 2015-2016 season wasn't scripted for them to win their fourth Stanley Cup.

It wasn't scripted for them to run the table and win the Eastern Conference Championship.

Actually, these guys weren't even supposed to make the playoffs.

Welcome to the City of Champions (also sometimes referred to as Pittsburgh) where Iron City beer is holy water, and expectations are sky high. It's a blue collar city that takes pride in it's sports teams. Priests in town know better than to have service go any longer than 12:00, the Steelers kickoff at 1:00. Simply put, Pittsburgh is a "championship or bust" town.

And for the past six years, every Penguins season has been exactly that: Bust. 

Last winning a title in 2009, the closest Sidney Crosby and company have come to hoisting the holiest trophy in all of sports, Lord Stanley's Cup, was in 2012, where Pittsburgh was properly swept 4-0 by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Since Pittsburgh's last cup run in 2009, each season has been seemingly filled with frustration through the entire organization, and the start of this season provided nothing new.

Flashback to December 12th of last year: The Penguins sat in 12th place in the East, playing a disappointing brand of hockey with everyone across the league had writing off Pittsburgh's chances. After firing Mike Johnston, Mike Sullivan was given the nod as Head Coach. With perhaps some foreshadowing, Sullivan stepped in and made his intentions clear:

"The challenge is to take a group of great players and become a great team. We’re going to establish an identity that’s clear. We’re going to play to that identity. We’re going to try and have an unwavering focus so that we don’t get distracted. We’re going to try and play that way each and every night.” - Mike Sullivan on Dec. 12
With Sullivan having his work cut out for him, he rightfully turned the Penguins season into a playoff one, a season of hope.

 Even with the incredible turnaround, questions still surrounded the Penguins before their postseason began. Phil Kessel, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the prior off-season, had been virtually invisible. Marc Andre-Fleury was injured with a concussion as the regular season ended, and the Penguins star-players in the likes of Crosby and Malkin were expected to disappear during the postseason once again.

On paper, they were supposed to be the same old Penguins.

Throw the paper out, hockey is played on ice. These Penguins are on a mission. After a 4-1 series win against the New York Rangers, a team who had previously knocked Pittsburgh out the past two seasons, the Penguins proceeded to defeat the Washington Capitals, President's Trophy winners and heavy favorites to win it all. Analysts claimed if anybody could match the speed of Pittsburgh, it would be the team to fight the Penguins for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final: The Tampa Bay Lightning.

Similar to all season, Pittsburgh again faced adversity. Matt Murray was struggling in net and in the middle of a goalie controversy, Evgeni Malkin was only seen on the back of a milk carton with the words "missing", and turnovers became a dangerous habit. However, just like before, the Penguins rose to the occasion, and after a thrilling seven game series, were knocking on the door of another championship.

Now, we can finally fast forward to the present. After grabbing a 3-1 series lead and proving to be the superior team against San Jose, all the stars were lined up for Pittsburgh to clinch a championship at home, something that hasn't been done by any professional sports team in the steel city since 1960. However, destiny would have other ideas, as the Stanley Cup wasn't quite ready to emerge from it's protective case.

As history would have it, on Sunday night, Patric Hornqvist would rifle the puck into an empty net to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead, and ultimately invited a Stanley Cup celebration after the buzzer sounded. Exactly seven years to the date of their last championship clinching victory (6/12/09) and six months after the hire of coach Sullivan (12/12/15), the Penguins were Stanley Cup Champions.

The bench cleared, hugs and handshakes were exchanged, t-shirts and hats were given out, and Pittsburgh finally had an answer to all the questions. The actual weight of the Cup is 35 pounds, yet is nowhere near the weight of pressure taken off the Penguins shoulders, for poetic justice, after a long seven years, was served. The questions about Sidney Crosby's legacy and leadership, the questions surrounding the depth of this team, the questions of who should start in goal, can all be answered by a simple two-handed raise of a trophy over the shoulders.

For such a long time, the believers of these Penguins were only found in the mirrors of the locker room. Yet it was in that very locker room afterwards that was full of champagne and joyous singing where this Pittsburgh team learned, they were the only ones that needed to believe.

 Out of the four Stanley Cups that now have been won for Pittsburgh, the latest one tastes the sweetest, and the trials/tribulations can attest to that.

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