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Crosby, Penguins enter playoffs aiming to make three-peat reality

Like chances of being first team since 1982 to accomplish feat

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- When Sidney Crosby dares to dream, it often turns into reality.

The Pittsburgh Penguins center has won the Stanley Cup three times (2009, 2016, 2017). He became a hero in his native country by scoring the gold medal-winning goal in overtime at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, giving Canada a 3-2 victory against the United States. He followed that by winning gold again with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games.

This time, he said, is different. This time, the immediate goal ahead seems surreal.

No matter. In Crosby's mind, as always, it's achievable.

If Crosby and the Penguins can grind their way to 16 victories in the next two months, they would become the first team to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83. The significance of the feat is not lost on the Penguins captain.

"It would be incredible," he said. "I mean …"

The usually chatty Crosby paused. He was at a loss for words.

 

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He nodded in the direction of the banners recognizing the 2016 and 2017 Cup championships on the wall of the Penguins dressing room.

"When someone asks me about three, I couldn't imagine what three would feel like," he said.

"I know what two feels like. You're pinching yourself because you know it's so hard and you don't know how you are going to do it. That group found a way. I think we used more than 30 players to win that second one last year.

"To know that feeling and to know how difficult it was to achieve that, [three] would be an unbelievable feeling."

One he strives to experience.

"I'd love to have another parade back home," Crosby said, referring to his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. "I think it's mandatory for those parades to be on the hottest day of the year but it's worth it.

"We have a long way to go before that happens."

No one said making history would be easy.

The road to a three-peat will run through the rival Philadelphia Flyers to start. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will play in the Eastern Conference First Round, the first series between them since 2012, when the Flyers won in six chippy, emotional games in the first round. Pittsburgh hosts Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS, NHL.TV).

The Penguins, who finished second in the Metropolitan Division, swept the four-game regular-season series from the third-place Flyers.

"The playoffs are tough, no matter who the opponent is," Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford said. "But we believe in this group. We believe there is a special opportunity in front of us.

"We have a chance to make history. If you don't know that, you've been living on another planet."

Video: Top 10 Goals of Season: Toffoli, Crosby net stunners

 

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On the first day of training camp seven months ago, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan greeted his players with three words that resonate with them to this day.

"Why not us?"

Sullivan has repeated that message a handful of times throughout the season, reminding his Penguins what is theirs for the taking.

"Everyone was telling us last year that we couldn't repeat. And we did," Sullivan said. "So [on] Day One of training camp, when it came to a three-peat, our question to the group was: 'Why not us?'

"I think the same thing. I believe we have a team here that has an opportunity. But right now that's all it is. And we've got to do everything within our power to maximize that opportunity that's in front of us."

The Penguins became the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

"It's no secret that what we did last year hadn't been done in quite some time," goalie Matt Murray said. "We now have the chance to be the first team [to three-peat] in 35 years. We're not going to shy away from it, we're not going to sweep it under the rug, we're going to go out and take it.

"We've said it the past couple of years: We'll never know if we'll have a team this good ever again or a chance like this ever again. Take advantage of your opportunities. We intend to do that.

"Anything you really want is there for the taking. You just have to find it from within. We know we have the people in this room to do that."

Murray is one of 13 Penguins players trying to win the Cup for a third consecutive time; the others are forwards Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl, and defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin.

"To me, the fact that they've been able to keep a core like that in a salary cap era is amazing," said Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, the Islanders captain for their four straight championships.

"If they win it again this year, they'd still be one short of our mark. But if they do, they'd be a modern-day dynasty because of how you build a team and how tough it is to keep them together."

Video: PIT@CBJ: Malkin helps Murray keep the puck out

 

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When Rutherford took over as Penguins general manager June 6, 2014, his agenda was clear: Do whatever it takes to win while Crosby (now 30 years old), Malkin (31) and Letang (30) each is in his prime.

"When you have special players like that, you have to exploit the window you have to succeed," Rutherford said. "We believe we have it for a few more years.

"The credit for the success goes to the players. And it always starts with Sid and [Malkin]."

Surrounding his two marquee players with a worthy supporting cast has been complicated for Rutherford in the NHL salary cap era.

After winning consecutive titles with Pittsburgh, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, forward Chris Kunitz and center Nick Bonino departed last offseason, with Rutherford trying to be fiscally responsible and have the Penguins remain Cup contenders. Fleury was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, and Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Bonino (Nashville Predators) signed elsewhere in free agency.

Because Murray and forwards Rust, Sheary and Jake Guentzel are recent products of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, they take up a modest chunk of the cap. The fact that they all are productive players increases their value to the Penguins.

"That's the impressive thing," said Scotty Bowman, who has the most coaching wins in NHL history (1,244). "They've been able to replace guys like that with younger players from the farm who carry cheaper salaries. The Rusts, the Murrays, the Shearys, the Guentzels, these guys have been difference makers in big moments."

If anyone knows what a difficult task the Penguins face, it's Bowman. He was the coach of the 1992-93 Penguins and the 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings, teams that had the chance to three-peat and failed. The only other teams with that opportunity in the past 35 years were the Edmonton Oilers of 1985-86 and 1988-89.

"Everything needs to go your way," Bowman said. "The '86 Oilers were eliminated when their own D-man (Steve Smith) banked in the deciding goal off his own goalie (in Game 7 of the Smythe Division Final). The '89 Oilers were without Wayne Gretzky, who was traded during the previous offseason.

"Of the things Pittsburgh has going for them, start with Crosby and Malkin. They know what a tough grind it is to win a Cup and they're willing to do it.

"When your best players are doing it, everyone else will follow. What better examples can you have?"

For Crosby, the end game is simple: another parade and a place in the history books.

Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leader in goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857), could not accomplish a three-peat with the Oilers in 1986. Mario Lemieux, the Penguins owner and Crosby's first landlord in Pittsburgh, couldn't do it with the Penguins in 1993. And Steve Yzerman, Crosby's idol growing up, failed in his attempt with the Red Wings in 1999.

The door is open for Crosby and the Penguins to achieve what the three Hall of Famers could not.

"Why not us?" he said. "I mean, we've been through this before. We know what it takes.

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