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Decade Review: Turning Point

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Wait, did that really just happen? I couldn't believe what I just saw. It was the most bizarre display I've seen in 12 years of covering hockey.

On the ice, future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stood in his crease without a stick yelling at the referees. As the Penguins entered the zone for a scoring chance, Lundqvist turned, grabbed the crossbar and flipped his net off of its moorings.

I was stunned. And confused.

Looking back now, I believe it was at that moment, above all others, that the 2015-16 Penguins became Stanley Cup champions.

Obviously, Pittsburgh didn't win the Cup in that game, a random contest in early March. But it was in that game that the Penguins exorcised their past demons, and jumped a major psychological hurdle.

The New York Rangers haunted Pittsburgh the previous two seasons. It started in the 2014 playoffs when New York overcame a 3-1 series deficit, winning three straight games to eliminate the Penguins. The following year, the Rangers once again ended Pittsburgh's season. This time it was in the opening round and after just five games.

Unbeknownst to all parties, the fate of the two franchises would take a dramatic turn in the second period of that March 3rd game in 2016.

The Penguins were darting toward the New York net with a 2-on-2 rush. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, trying to defend Patric Hornqvist, ran into his own goaltender. Though play continued without stoppage, Lundqvist barked at the referee for a whistle. When the whistle wasn't blown, Lundqvist turned and shoved the net off of its moorings and into the end boards in a fit of rage. Penguins fans cheered in delight at the sequence.

Tweet from @penguins: You mad bro? pic.twitter.com/SzGIETehB5

The Rangers would score first in the game, their only goal of the day. It took the Penguins an entire 57 seconds to respond. Captain Sidney Crosby found his own rebound off the end boards and alertly, with one hand on his stick, tapped the puck back at the crease, off of Lundqvist's pad and over the goal line.

Crosby's goal would be the start of a three-goal outburst in 1:39 minutes of play, and all within the final two minutes of the second period. Evgeni Malkin pounced on a rebound in the lower circle and snapped in a shot to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead 21 seconds after Crosby tied the game. Hornqvist finished the series with a power-play goal on a re-direct from between the circles with just 34 seconds left in the middle frame.

Tweet from @penguins: Hornqvist redirects one past Lundqvist. As if he wasn't angry enough already... Replay: https://t.co/Zd8SXjCyke pic.twitter.com/W0XKDTPV5T

The Penguins scored three total goals in the final three games of the First Round series against Lundqvist in the 2015 playoffs - a span of 194:06 minutes of hockey. Pittsburgh had just equaled that three-goal output in 99 seconds. When the third period began, Lundqvist was sitting on the bench and Antti Raanta relieved him for the third period (it would not be the last time Lundqvist watched the Penguins beat his Rangers from the bench).

The Penguins would go on to win, 4-1. However, the result was bigger than just one win and two points in the standings. That game was Pittsburgh's coming out party. It was the first sign that this team was different, that this season was different. 

Not only did the Penguins defeat New York, they established supremacy. Not only did the Penguins finally manage to score goals on Lundqvist, they managed to penetrate his psyche. Lundqvist and the Rangers were no longer invincible. The Penguins had cracked the armor. Soon they would blow it open.

But Pittsburgh's biggest "statement game" would come 17 days later. It was a 60-minute declaration that the Penguins were for real. Pittsburgh would be a force in the playoffs and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.            

The Penguins hosted Washington in a highly anticipated contest. Since Pittsburgh and Washington played in the same division, the Penguins knew they would have to go through Washington in order to win a Stanley Cup.

The Capitals had the best record in the NHL at 51-15-5 entering the game, and no other team was even close to them in the standings. Washington would cruise to the best regular-season record in the league and the Presidents' Trophy.

The Capitals appeared to have no weaknesses. They ranked in the top-4 in every category: offense (2), defense (3), power play (4) and penalty kill (4). Netminder Braden Holtby was in the midst of tying an NHL record with 48 wins. The task was daunting.

The Penguins would take a 2-0 lead with a pair of goals 86-seconds apart from Bryan Rust and Trevor Daley. The Capitals would score twice to tie the game, 2-2, but that's when the game's - and the season's - trajectory changed.

Forty-two seconds after the Capitals tied the game, Tom Kuhnhackl buried a one-timer to give Pittsburgh a lead it would not relinquish. Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz would make it a 5-2 game in the third period and end Holtby's night. The man who would win the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie and rewrite the NHL record books watched the final 12:42 minutes from the bench.

The Penguins not only defeated, but dominated the league's top team in a 6-2 win. What stood out most of all was Pittsburgh's speed. Washington was no match for the Penguins' high-tempo pace of play.

Tweet from @penguins: SIX GOALS.SIX STRAIGHT WINS.SECOND PLACE IN THE METRO.It���s good to be us. pic.twitter.com/H1uJU4vNxX

For the first time in years, the Penguins were playing with swagger and dominance. They had no fear. Three months ago, the Penguins were fragile. Now every man in the Penguins locker room believed.

The Penguins would have a rematch with both the Rangers (First Round) and Capitals (Second Round) that spring. Pittsburgh would win both series on its way to the fourth Stanley Cup title in franchise history.

But the seeds were planted in those two regular-season games. It would be another three months before the Penguins would hoist the Stanley Cup, but it was in those two games in March that the Penguins became champions.

The Penguins were arguably the most successful NHL franchise over the last decade (2010-19). They made the playoffs every season while becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in nearly 20 years. The team provided many memorable moments over that 10-year span. In this Decade Review series website writers Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo, who have been with the team the entire time, highlight the 10 storylines and moments that stand out to them from the past 10 years.

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