The Pittsburgh Penguins will try to do something that hasn't been done in 19 years: repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The Penguins advanced to the Stanley Cup Final with a 3-2 double-overtime win against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday. The defending champions have won seven straight playoff series and can become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98 to win consecutive titles.
The Penguins didn't make many moves after winning won the Cup last season by defeating the San Jose Sharks in the Final. Forwards Beau Bennett and Eric Fehr were traded, and defenseman Ben Lovejoy and third-string goalie Jeff Zatkoff left as free agents. Despite a rash of injuries this season, including to top-pair defenseman Kris Letang (who missed 41 games in the regular season and the entire postseason), defenseman Olli Maatta (27 games missed), defenseman Trevor Daley (26), forward Carl Hagelin (21), center Evgeni Malkin (20) and goaltender Matt Murray, who missed the first three weeks of the season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Penguins had players step up when called upon.
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Under Mike Sullivan, who took over as coach on Dec. 12, 2015, the Penguins finished 50-21-11 this season, second in the Metropolitan Division. They are 83-37-16 (.610 winning percentage) during his tenure in Pittsburgh. Center Sidney Crosby had 89 points (44 goals, 45 assists), center Evgeni Malkin had 72 (33 goals, 39 assists), and forward Phil Kessel had 70 (23 goals, 47 assists) to lead the offense. But the Penguins also got surprising contributions from Justin Schultz, who had an NHL career-high 51 points (12 goals, 39 assists) and was their highest-scoring defenseman, and rookie forward Jake Guentzel, who had 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 40 games. Also, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury graciously accepted a reduced role before stepping in for the injured Murray to help Pittsburgh advance to the conference final.
Video: Billy Jaffe and Darren Pang recap the PIT-OTT series
The Penguins' run to the Final included series wins against two division rivals; they defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round, then defeated the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in seven in the second round. It's the second straight year that the Penguins eliminated the Capitals after Washington finished with the best record in the NHL during the regular season.
Now, they will face the Nashville Predators, making their first appearance in the Cup Final. Last season was the first time the Sharks made the Final and the Penguins defeated them in six games. Pittsburgh will have home-ice advantage; the Penguins were 31-6-4 in the regular season and are 7-3 in the playoffs at PPG Paints Arena.
Here are some of the highlights along the Penguins' road to the Stanley Cup Final:
BEST MOMENT: Game 7 win against Capitals
Pittsburgh has had Washington's number for years, winning eight of nine postseason series prior to this season. After winning the first two games in the second round on the road, the Penguins appeared to be on their way to the conference final. But the Capitals battled back from down 3-1 in the series to force Game 7 at Washington. However, the Penguins remained calm under pressure; Fleury made 29 saves, and forwards Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist scored in a 2-0 win.
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm7: Rust roofs Guentzel's perfect pass
TURNING POINT: Jan. 16 win vs. Capitals
This game featured two teams heading in opposite directions; the Penguins had lost three straight by a combined score of 15-6, and the Capitals had won nine straight. Washington scored the first three goals of the game to take a 3-0 lead 1:17 into the second period, but Pittsburgh then scored five consecutive goals in 8:09 for a 5-3 lead before the Capitals tied the game 5-5 less than three minutes later. Malkin completed his hat trick and scored the last of nine goals in the second period for a 6-5 Pittsburgh lead. Crosby made it 7-5 in the third, but the Capitals tied the game 7-7 before forward Conor Sheary scored 34 seconds into overtime to give the Penguins an 8-7 victory that began a four-game winning streak for Pittsburgh.
BEST MOVE MADE: Moving Jake Guentzel to top line
Sullivan moved Guentzel to the top line in mid-February, and he flourished with Crosby. Guentzel had 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 11 games to end the regular season, including a five-game goal streak heading into the playoffs. The offense was a welcome addition, especially in the absence of Malkin in the final weeks of the season because of injury. Guentzel has 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 19 postseason games and is tied for the goal-scoring lead in the playoffs with Anaheim Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Guentzel nets Crosby's quick feed
BEST MOVE NOT MADE: Not trading Marc-Andre Fleury
With Murray having played a key role in the run to the Cup in 2016 and Fleury having been the starter in Pittsburgh for more than a decade, it was unclear how the goalie situation would work this season. General manager Jim Rutherford said he wanted to keep both goalies; he did so, and it paid off. Despite a subpar regular season from Fleury (18-10-7), who had his highest goals-against average (3.02) since 2005-06, he filled in well after Murray was injured during warmups before Pittsburgh's first-round opener against Columbus. Fleury went 9-6 with a 2.56 GAA, a .924 save percentage and two shutouts in 15 starts before Murray reassumed the No. 1 role midway through the series against Ottawa. Rutherford's decision to keep his two goaltenders is a big reason Pittsburgh is back in the Cup Final.
Video: OTT@PIT, Gm2: Fleury robs Turris through traffic
SIGNATURE WIN (REGULAR SEASON): Nov. 23 at New York Rangers
Coming off two straight losses, including 5-2 at home against the Rangers two nights earlier, the Penguins got revenge in dominating fashion. Pittsburgh outshot New York 38-17 and scored five times in a 14:40 span in the second period -- including two goals and an assist from Crosby -- to take a 5-1 lead. Center Matt Cullen scored in the third period to put the finishing touches on a 6-1 win Sullivan called "as good of a game as we've played all year." The victory began a 9-2-0 stretch and started a run of 15 wins in 20 games (15-3-2).
SIGNATURE WIN (PLAYOFFS): Game 3 at Blue Jackets
After winning the first two games of the first round against the Blue Jackets at home, the Penguins got off to a slow start in Game 3 at Columbus, allowing a goal 11 seconds into the game and trailing 3-1 less than seven minutes in. But Pittsburgh didn't panic, getting second-period goals from Rust and Malkin to tie the game 3-3 before Guentzel gave the Penguins a 4-3 lead with 8:12 remaining in the third. The Blue Jackets tied it late to force overtime, but Guentzel completed his hat trick at 13:10 of OT to give the Penguins a 3-0 series lead.
Video: PIT@CBJ, Gm3: Malkin scores with help from Rust
MVP: Sidney Crosby
Although he missed the first six games of the regular season with a concussion, Crosby scored 15 goals in his first 16 games. He led the League in goals (44) and finished tied for second in points (89). Crosby was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy as League MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award as the most outstanding player voted by the NHL Players' Association. His 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 18 playoff games are second in the NHL behind Malkin's 24.
Video: OTT@PIT, Gm5: Crosby tips in Daley's shot for PPG
ROOKIE OF YEAR: Jake Guentzel
Guentzel scored two goals in his NHL debut on Nov. 21, but he really took off after he was placed on a line with Crosby. In 40 games, the 22-year-old had 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) and a 19.8 shooting percentage. With three game-winning goals in the playoffs, Guentzel has been this season's Nick Bonino, who had 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 24 postseason games during the Stanley Cup run in 2016.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Justin Schultz
Schultz excelled in his first full season with the Penguins. He had 51 points (12 goals, 39 assists) in 78 games; each was an NHL career high. His goal and points totals were higher than in the previous two seasons combined. Schultz also has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 15 playoff games, including a goal and an assist in Game 7 against the Senators. In addition to taking on a bigger role offensively (154 shots on goal, 20 power-play points), Schultz was an anchor on defense; he led Pittsburgh with a plus-27 rating and played big minutes because of injuries to Letang, Maatta and Daley.
Video: PIT@STL: Schultz hammers a one-timer from down low