SAN JOSE -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are the Stanley Cup champions. Once upon a time, that would not have been a surprising statement. It might have been taken for granted. After all, they had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best players in the world. They were expected to win, right?
If only winning were so simple.
For six seasons the Penguins tried to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in the Crosby era, and they never made the Final, advancing as far as the Eastern Conference final once. Then this season, when they fired their coach, when they started 15-14-3, when they revamped their roster, when they weren't expected to do it, they did it.
The Penguins eliminated the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 win in Game 6 of the Final at SAP Center on Sunday, hoisting the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in franchise history and the first time since 2009.
"When you look back, it seems like a while ago," Crosby said the other day. "In '09, it was something that you felt like maybe might be an annual thing, and it's not that easy. … It's difficult to win once, let alone twice. So I think it says a lot."
It was hard enough when Penguins icon Mario Lemieux won the Cup in 1991 and 1992. It is harder now in this era of the salary cap and parity, but it's possible with a strong core, savvy management, smart coaching and cohesive performance. The Penguins have become one of three teams to win the Cup multiple times since the cap was introduced in 2005-06, joining the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015) and Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014).
Pittsburgh's core of Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury stayed constant. But the Penguins replaced general manager Ray Shero with Jim Rutherford in June 2014; Rutherford replaced coach Dan Bylsma with Mike Johnston that same month and Johnston with Mike Sullivan in December 2015. Rutherford turned over the supporting cast with prospects he inherited and players he acquired via trade and free agency. Perhaps his biggest move: trading for forward Phil Kessel July 1, 2015.
"All those moves are important," Crosby said. "They all add up. But that's certainly a big one."
A coaching change sparked the Penguins in 2008-09, when Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien midseason, and a coaching change sparked them again this season, at least after an adjustment period. The Penguins went 0-4-0 and were outscored 15-4 in their first four games under Sullivan. They were 15-14-3 after a 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 19.
"The first part of the season was awfully tough," Penguins forward Matt Cullen said. "We just never really found our stride and never found our game."
But Sullivan played to the Penguins' strengths of speed and skill while Rutherford kept reshaping the roster. Rutherford traded for defenseman Trevor Daley on Dec. 14, forward Carl Hagelin on Jan. 16 and defenseman Justin Schultz on Feb. 27. He called up Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary along the way. They had played for Sullivan with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, so they knew what he expected and he knew what they could do.
Not only did the Penguins make the playoffs, they came in having won 15 of their last 17 games and discovered the "HBK Line" of Hagelin, center Nick Bonino and Kessel that would make them a matchup nightmare for opponents.
Still, their chances seemed slim in the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Rangers. Malkin and defenseman Olli Maatta had missed the end of the regular season with injuries. Fleury, the starting goaltender, was out with a concussion. Murray, the backup, was out with a concussion. But Maatta returned, and Malkin returned, and Murray returned and took over the net, and the Penguins defeated the Rangers, the team that had eliminated them last season, in five games.
They went on to defeat the Washington Capitals, the winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team, in six. They went on to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Stanley Cup runner-up last season, in seven after facing a 3-2 series deficit, even though they lost Daley to injury during the series. Who scored both goals in their 2-1 victory in Game 7? Not Crosby. Not Malkin. Not Kessel. It was Rust, a rookie.
"I think that Tampa series was where we found ourselves," Cullen said. "The series flipped on its head. We were up 2-1 and everything was looking pretty good, and all of a sudden you find yourselves down 3-2. It was a big test for our team, and I was really proud of our team and the way that we played when we were down. I thought those two games were right up with the very best games we had all playoffs. I was really happy with the way our team responded to the adversity, and that's been our hallmark all year."
Even so, few picked the Penguins to beat the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks were supposed to be bigger, tougher, harder, the stereotypical superior team from the Western Conference. They were supposed to pin the Penguins in their zone, grind them and wear them down. But the Penguins set the tone by flying past them in the first period of Game 1, and they proved to be the superior team throughout the series, offensively and defensively. Frankly, the Sharks were lucky the series went six games, winning Game 3 in overtime and Game 5 thanks to stellar goaltending by Martin Jones.
Crosby now has won the Stanley Cup as many times as Lemieux did, and he was brilliant at times in the playoffs, from scoring an overtime winner to setting up an overtime winner with a faceoff play. But this championship belongs to every Penguin: the GM, the coach, the captain, the core, the new guys. It is a testament to how difficult it can be to win the Cup in today's NHL, how difficult it can be predict the winner, how quickly things can change, how it takes talent and management and coaching and, above all else, a team.