The Pittsburgh Penguins have put themselves in a position to potentially clinch the Stanley Cup Final in Game 5, and the question on a lot of people’s minds is "what has made this team so successful?"
At the end of December, the Pens had lost 19 of their first 37 games, and most people did not foresee them going as far as they have. Over the past decade Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been the faces of the organization, and although they have certainly made major contributions to the team’s success, there is no denying that the Pens are where they are today because of the group as a whole.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a really down to earth, a really passionate leadership group,” defensemen Ian Cole said. “Obviously starting with our captain in ‘Sid,’ and then going right down through (Kris Letang), through ‘Geno,’ through (Chris Kunitz) through (Matt Cullen) and (Eric Fehr) and Phil (Kessel) and (Nick Bonino) and Carl Hagelin. A lot of guys here on the D end that are the same way.”
The team’s three captains, Crosby, Malkin and Kunitz, and also Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all a part of the Pens’ 2009 Stanley Cup championship squad, but they are not the only guys in the room who have been in this situation before. Cullen won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, Hagelin played in the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 with the New York Rangers, and Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino and Ben Lovejoy have each appeared in the playoffs at least five times before this season.
“I think we have good leaders throughout the room,” Hagelin said. “Whether you have a C an A or nothing on your jersey there are a bunch of guys that speak up when we need to. We have a couple guys that won the Cup before and know what it takes. It’s always great to have that presence in the room, and it’s felt. It’s different guys stepping up every night.”
There are seven members of the Pens’ roster who made have made their NHL playoff debut this year, and amongst them, they have collected 26 points. Not to mention, Matt Murray has earned 14 wins so far, the franchise record for most wins in a playoff run by a rookie goaltender, and Bryan Rust’s six postseason goals are the most ever scored by a Pens’ rookie.
“Everyone is equally excited to win games and hates to lose games, and it really helps us to kind of trickle that down to the younger guys who are coming up,” Cole explained. “And they kind of can see that. It’s palpable in the sense that they realize how important every game is, how important every situation is. And enough can’t be said for how those young guys have stepped up, and I think the credit goes to the older guys on this team, the more veteran players.”
The rookies know that there is a lot to be learned from the veteran players in the room, and a lot of that knowledge is easily gained simply by watching the older players.
“Every now and then they’ll give little pointers here and there about what you could do better in certain situations, and I wouldn’t say it’s just the captains,” Rust said. “It’s probably all the older guys in the room. All the guys who have been through a lot, and all those guys lead by example. Just how they carry themselves, and how they compose themselves in certain situations.”
At a time like this where there is an immense amount of pressure on the next game, the Pens’ veterans are needed more than ever, and they seem to have a good handle on things by sticking to the team’s mentality of taking things one day at a time.
“We’ve played well,” Cullen explained. “It’s been a really good series. It’s been close. The line is so thin out there, and there’s not a lot of space. Both teams are playing at a very high level. We’ve managed to get the big goal when we needed it, so we find ourselves here. The trick with the whole thing is that nothing’s done yet. We got a long ways to go here, and we haven’t done anything yet other than get ourselves a good opportunity.”
The older guys know better than to get too ahead of themselves, and they’ve been able to spread that mindset to the younger players.
“It’s just another game of the series, and the older guys are telling us the works not done,” Conor Sheary said. “There’s a lot of excitement going around. Around Pittsburgh and around our room, but we know we have a lot of work to do.”