The experts said they couldn't win the Stanley Cup back to back. History said they couldn't do it. No one had done it for almost two decades. It was supposed to be too hard because of the NHL salary cap, the competitive balance, the grueling schedule.
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"And so the very first conversation we had with these guys, I challenged them right away and said, 'Why not?' " Sullivan said. " 'Why can't we? Let's not let somebody else write our story.'"
The epic ended in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday.
After more than 58 minutes of thrilling, scoreless hockey, defenseman Justin Schultz fired a shot wide right that ricocheted off the end boards. Forward Patric Hornqvist cut in front of Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, hit his stick and knocked him off balance. He whacked the puck out of midair, off the left arm of Rinne and into the net with 1:35 left.
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm6: Hornqvist banks in late go-ahead goal
Forward Carl Hagelin scored into an empty net with 13.6 seconds left, the clock counted down and that was it. With tens of thousands of people watching inside Bridgestone Arena, outside on Lower Broadway and at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, the Penguins won 2-0. They threw their gear into the air and mobbed each other as the fans rained debris and boos upon them.
They had met the challenge. They had done what they were not supposed to be able to do and raised their stature in the hockey hierarchy.
They became the first to win the Cup back to back since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and '98 before the cap; second to win it three times in the cap era, joining the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, '13 and '15); and seventh to win it five times, joining the Montreal Canadiens (24), Toronto Maple Leafs (13), Red Wings (11), Boston Bruins (six), Blackhawks (six) and Edmonton Oilers (five).
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm6: Hagelin strikes into the empty net
Mario Lemieux won the Cup twice as a player with the Penguins, in 1991 and '92. Now that the Penguins have added two championships to the one they won in 2009, he has won three more as an owner. The duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have surpassed the duo of Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
"It's something special, something that these guys and all of us in the organization can cherish for the rest of our lives," Lemieux said. "It's unbelievable."
Crosby added to his legend. After winning the Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the playoffs last year, he was unsatisfied. He sensed an opportunity with a stacked Team Canada roster at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto and a largely intact Penguins roster.
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm6: Crosby receives Conn Smythe Trophy
"We won, and we had a couple chats," defenseman Kris Letang said. "He really wanted to get in shape right away to get to the World Cup, win the World Cup, come back and say, 'We can win this again.' We have a lot of young guys, a lot of energy."
Sure enough, Team Canada won the World Cup, dominating the tournament, and Crosby was MVP. The Penguins went 50-21-11 in the regular season, finishing second in the NHL standings, and Crosby led the League in goals with 44. He had 27 points in 24 games in the playoffs, second to Malkin, who had 28 in 25, and won the Cup and Conn Smythe again. He became the third to win the Conn Smythe back to back, joining Lemieux (1991, '92) and Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Bernie Parent (1974, '75).
"I've never been around an athlete as driven as Sid," Sullivan said. "Not only is he a great player, but I believe what separates him from others is his willingness and his work ethic to do what it takes to stay on top. He's arguably the best player of this generation."
General manager Jim Rutherford went further.
"In Sid's case, he's now in that group of top three, four all-time greats," Rutherford said. "He's in that conversation now without a doubt."
Malkin was deserving of the Conn Smythe as well. Then there was forward Jake Guentzel, who led the League with 13 goals and tied a rookie record with 21 points, and forward Phil Kessel, with his 23 points. And then there were goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. And then there were … well, and then there was everybody else. Sullivan's mantra was "just play," and that's just what this team did day after day, game after game, round after round.
The Penguins overcame significant injuries. They didn't have Letang, their No. 1 defenseman, for the playoffs because of neck surgery. They lost Murray, their No. 1 goaltender, during warmups for the playoff opener. He wasn't available for almost a month. Hornqvist, Schultz, Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Tom Kuhnhackl, Chris Kunitz, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary each missed multiple playoff games too. Many played hurt.
The Penguins overcame a particularly hard road. Because they were in the Metropolitan Division, the toughest division in the NHL in the regular season, they had to play two of the top four teams in the League. They eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished fourth, in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round, and the Washington Capitals, who won the Presidents' Trophy, in seven in the second.
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm6: Penguins celebrate Stanley Cup win
The Penguins overcame the thin line between winning and losing. Through two rounds, they were outshot in 11 of 12 games and 423-332 total. But they won thanks to Fleury, blocked shots and opportunistic scoring. They fell behind the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final, and Murray replaced Fleury. They went to double overtime of Game 7, and Kunitz, the 37-year-old veteran who hadn't scored in more than three months before that night, got his second of the game to win it.
Finally, the Penguins overcame Nashville. After winning Games 1 and 2 at home, the Penguins lost Games 3 and 4 amid an incredible scene in Music City surrounding the Predators' first trip to the Final. But the Penguins blew out the Predators 6-0 in Game 5 at home, walked into the arena where the Predators were 9-1 in the playoffs, and found a way yet again.
After 213 games in the regular season and playoffs, including 49 playoff games, an NHL record for a two-year span, the Penguins wrote their own story all right.
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm6: Sullivan on Pens' character in Cup win
"I just think we have such great leadership in our room," Sullivan said. "These guys never look for an excuse. They never look for the easy way out. They understand that it's hard to win, and they embrace the struggle."
That's the best part.
"We knew it was going to be difficult," Crosby said. "That's probably where the most joy comes from, just knowing how difficult it is now to go back to back and knowing that we did all those things. It's a pretty special group, I'll say that."