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Stanley Cup Final

Penguins on brink of Stanley Cup repeat despite injuries

Can clinch second straight championship with road win against Predators in Game 6

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the same position they were a year ago.

Past that, there haven't been many similarities between this Stanley Cup Playoff run and the one they used to win the Stanley Cup in 2016.

The Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 and will travel to Bridgestone Arena for Game 6 of the Final against the Nashville Predators on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"I think the elimination games are just an indication of the compete level that takes place throughout the course of this NHL playoffs," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think that's what makes this trophy as difficult to win as it is, but it's also what makes it as rewarding."

Pittsburgh knows how to close out a Cup Final on the road. The Penguins did it last year with a 3-1 win in Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center.

 

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In that game, Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang scored the game-winner at 7:46 of the second period. The Penguins also had three lines that could have been considered a top line, with the "HBK Line" of Nick Bonino centering left wing Carl Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel leading the way.

Things have changed during the past year. Letang is out after having neck surgery on April 13. Several other injuries could have derailed the Penguins at various points and the HBK Line, which has reunited only a few times during the playoffs, seems like a distant memory.

Center Sidney Crosby missed Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals after sustaining his second concussion of the season. A lingering lower-body injury has sapped Hagelin's speed and an upper-body injury has reduced Patric Hornqvist to a fourth-line role.

Bonino has missed the past three games because of a lower-body injury, which has 40-year-old forward Matt Cullen centering the third line with 28-year-old rookie Carter Rowney playing fourth-line center between Hagelin and Hornqvist.

A lower-body injury to defenseman Trevor Daley and an upper-body injury to defenseman Justin Schultz kept each out for four games in May and further thinned an already ailing defense.

"Our defense group is, in a lot of ways, the unsung hero of this team," Sullivan said. "I think they fly under the radar for obvious reasons. …  This team doesn't have success if that group of defensemen doesn't play the way that they played throughout the course of this playoffs."

Video: Michelle speaks with Murray about his performance

Despite all of that, the Penguins are one win away from defending their championship.

Timely goaltending from both Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury has helped. So have center Evgeni Malkin's NHL-leading 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists), Crosby's 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists), and rookie forward Jake Guentzel's League-leading 13 goals.

Most of all, though, Sullivan believes this run has been fueled by the Penguins' ability to manage adversity.

"I think it says a lot about the people that we have," Sullivan said. "I really believe this group of players is a unique group of players. They have a unique chemistry. They really care about one another. They're a close-knit group. They play hard for one another, and they have an appetite to win.

"I think they've provided plenty of evidence to suggest that with the deep runs that they've had in the last couple of seasons. I can't say enough for this group of players. I've said on a number of occasions that they're a privilege to coach and I sincerely mean that."

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