"I've been around a lot of teams both as a player and a coach now," he replied. "This team, I think, has a unique chemistry. They're a great group of people. I think they enjoy playing for one another. They've accomplished a lot in their time together. They have a unique chemistry. I believe it's a competitive advantage for our team. I think these guys really enjoy one another, and they play hard for one another.
"I know our coaching staff doesn't take it for granted. We talk about it a lot. We've got a great group of guys. These guys are a privilege to coach. We push them hard because we think so highly of them, we're trying to get the most out of them. By no means does our coaching staff take for granted the quality of the people that we have an opportunity to work with every day."
For those of us that have been on this ride with them, we couldn't agree more.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2016, the Pens got a chance to defend their title with mostly the same group. Of course, they had some key additions - Jake Guentzel being the biggest one - but for the most part, there weren't huge departures, which doesn't happen often in the salary-cap era.
However, they are not going to get a chance to go for a three-peat with this same group. They are more than likely going to lose a key player to the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. As I write this, I'm getting a lump in my throat thinking that Marc-Andre Fleury - who will always be one of the absolute best human beings I will ever meet in my life - may not be back. Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz have big decisions to make about their futures. Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley are set to be unrestricted free agents. The list goes on.
But for now, let's not think about that. Let's reflect back on just how special this team is, especially the players who have been here for both runs.
*** Let's start with Fleury. I can't say enough about how he handled his situation the last two years. He had been the franchise goalie since 2003, starting his career during dark days for the franchise, and had done so much for the organization in his years here. To see the starting job he'd held for so long slip away last year because of an injury, something he couldn't control, had to be incredibly frustrating. But not as frustrating as taking over for Game 1 of the First Round, backstopping the team into the Third Round and then losing his job, again. But Fleury remained the consummate teammate. He always came to the rink his usual positive, smiling self, continued to have fun during practices (despite having to utilize them differently than he did in the past), and was always willing to talk and laugh and joke with anyone who wanted to have a conversation in the locker room.
*** He was also willing to be a mentor and a friend to Matt Murray. Seeing how the two of them handled this situation is the definition of teamwork and sportsmanship. It wasn't easy, but they did a fantastic job of figuring it out. Matt is a special kid and a special goalie who has blown everybody away with what he's done as a rookie. For him to come in and do what he did is nothing short of amazing.
*** Murray is part of that group who came up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton together, and I've got to be honest, I personally feel a lot of pride having watched them grow up these last few years. They all took different ways to get here, but once they all arrived in the AHL together, they became so close down in WBS. And that carried over into the NHL. They all lived in a hotel together last year, and once they were told to get permanent housing in Pittsburgh, they all chose to live in the same complex. They've even formed a bunch of little superstitions and traditions together.
For example, watch when the team takes the ice right before puck drop. Most guys like to hit the ice and do a few laps, but Rust, Sheary, Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl all just go straight to the bench, sit down together and link arms. They even have a specific order, which, as Sheary told me, gets messed up when one of them is in the starting lineup and that throws them all off.
"A lot of times, people say in pro sports there's not much of a team aspect, it's more about making money," Sheary said. "But I think for this group, it's been a lot different just because we have had to go through so much together starting with the coaching change last year and then making it to two straight Finals. I think you grow as friends and you grow a chemistry to the room, and it's a lot of fun to come to the rink and be a part of."
*** Those kids are a mature bunch, as all of them are in long-term relationships and living with their significant others. They have their own families, just like the veteran guys here do, so the bonding with their older teammates was not over beers and going out. It was more done here in the arena, with Fleury pranking them when they first arrived or Sidney Crosby making sure that they felt comfortable in the locker room. That's exactly what they all did for Guentzel, who came in pretty much on his own. Unlike the second-year guys, who had played together for two pro seasons, he got called up to Pittsburgh much earlier in his career and he didn't come up with a bunch of teammates. But his new teammates went out of their way to make him feel welcome.
*** Speaking of old souls, doesn't it feel like Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin have been here forever? Maatta, 22, and Dumoulin, 25, both just finished their fourth pro seasons. They're both so mature it's easy to forget how young they both are. On the ice, they're both so calm and steady back there on the blue line and quietly got the job done for the Pens. Off the ice, Maatta is surprisingly outgoing and so much fun to be around while Dumoulin is such a good guy who also handles team DJ duties, which means he's always playing an awesome mix of songs for the boys.
*** Phil. Where to even start with Phil? He is a unique personality, to say the least, and one that has fit in so perfectly since he arrived here from Toronto. The guys absolutely love him and love to mess with him, always joking around with him and trying to get him going. Take the prank that Malkin pulled on him earlier this season. Kessel tweeted a picture chirping Malkin for having to get dressed on a chair inside the locker room at New Jersey because he wasn't playing, and Malkin got his revenge in the next city by moving Phil's equipment onto a chair outside the locker room complete with a case of Coca-Cola, a coffeepot and cups, some signs and a big one above it all reading "The Phil Zone."
"It's an indication of how close our team is," Sullivan said that day. "I think they enjoy one another. They're constantly running pranks on one another. I think that helps build the chemistry around the room. It's all in good fun. Phil always seems to be in the center of all of that. I think it's really good stuff. That's an indication of the type of chemistry that we have in our locker room."
Sometimes Kessel will have disagreements with his teammates, as we saw when the cameras caught him and Malkin getting animated with each other on the bench earlier in the playoffs. As Malkin joked to me, "We support each other. Not every day, I mean, sometimes we get confused." But these guys are a family. They figure it out and move on together as brothers.
*** I can't say enough about how the rest of the acquisitions over the last two years have fit in. It's actually remarkable how it feels like they've all been here forever, when actually, it's only been a few years at the most.
- Patric Hornqvist was the first player brought in, and with him came an unbelievable energy. The guy goes 100 mph at everything he does in life. He's so intense and passionate and wears his emotions right on his chest. He's someone who's always positive and his attitude is contagious. You can't help but smile when talking about Hornqvist.
- When Carl Hagelin arrived, he became best friends with his fellow Swede. They live close by each other and often drive to the rink together. But it's not just Hornqvist that Hagelin is close with. 'Haggy' or 'Hags,' as the boys call him, is someone who gets along with and hangs out with everyone.
- Ian Cole may not be quite as loud as Hornqvist, but he's also got a big personality. He's one of the smartest, funniest, most talkative people you'll meet and is just so personable. He definitely helps keep things light with his teammates and the media.
- Last year Ben Lovejoy told me that Nick Bonino was one of the best teammates he's ever played with, and I've learned why. Bonino is someone who has a dry, deadpan sense of humor and he loves giving guys a hard time in the most loving way possible. His interactions with Kessel are by far the best.
- Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz may come off as quiet in interviews, but from what I've seen being around the team, I can tell you they're not quiet within the group. Like Hagelin, they also get along with everyone and have awesome personalities. As Dumoulin said, he loves both of those guys "to death."
- And then Matt Cullen, or 'Dad,' as the guys call him. He's honestly the nicest guy and is such a good person. He's been so invaluable with his experience and advice and is just such a pleasure to be around. The guys love him and his family, as his three boys are a constant presence in the locker room. They also love the quirky habits he's adopted that have allowed him to still play at such a high level at age 40.
*** Finally, the rest of the core after Fleury - Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kunitz.
Those guys have played together for a long time, and they've been through a lot together. When people look back at these back-to-back runs, they'll see those are the players who spent a lot of that time re-writing the record books. It all starts with them. As Hagelin said to me, "It's obviously a special group. I can't say I've been on a team where there's been a closer-knit group. It starts with our leadership. 'Sid' is the leader of this team, 'Geno' is the leader of this team, 'Tanger' is the leader of this team. And they're really good at bringing guys together. And a guy like 'Kuni' who's been around, I think we have a good mix of older and younger guys that mesh well."
* Kunitz is someone everyone in that room references when talking about how to win. They respect him so much for the three Stanley Cup rings he has and the veteran presence he brings. He's someone who's always right in the thick of things, too, as he's part of the card game on the plane with Bonino, Kessel and Malkin and just loves being around his teammates.
"I think we've always enjoyed coming to the rink every day," Kunitz said. "Didn't matter if it was after a win or a loss, we knew the next day we were going to go work together, and you have fun doing it. It's not a drag, even in kind of the most dark days in January of the season and things like that. I think the best part about being on this Penguins team is that we have fun going to the rink every day, and that's why you want to play as long as you can."
* Speaking of Malkin, he's just so much fun. He's always hooting and hollering and as he laughed the other day, "I'm not a quiet guy in the locker room." He's someone we always hear on the plane yelling and laughing and just having a blast. "It's so much fun to be here," he told me. "It's very close. Good players, good teammates. I love being here." But he hasn't just been vocal with his teammates. He's been vocal with the media as well and has stepped up and taken that burden off other guys during tough stretches and after tough losses.
* Letang was the Pens' most important player on the ice last year, and this year he embraced his role off the ice. He just loves hockey, loves being at the rink and loves being around the boys contributing in any way he can. He's someone who did an awesome job of keeping it loose around the room. His spirits have been high and it's contagious.
* And Crosby. Honestly, we could be here all night talking about him. As one of his former coaches told me, he's a better person than he is a player, which says everything you need to know about him. He's the captain and the one everybody looks up to and follows. He takes that responsibility so seriously and goes out of his way to make sure the locker room is a welcoming environment for everybody. From texting new teammates right after they join the organization - even taking them golfing or to dinner - to getting to know the young guys when they come up, he's the ultimate leader. That goes for the organization as a whole, as he's so great to the staff. And he's really a fun guy, too. I've gotten to spend a lot of time with him the last couple of summers, and he's truly enjoyable to be around.
No matter what happens or where they go from here, this group will always have an unbreakable bond from their experiences together. As Bryan Rust said, "There's not a guy in there that I'm going to forget. I'm going to remember each and every one of those guys forever." And when they come back to Pittsburgh in the future for anniversaries of their back-to-back Cups, it's going to be so much fun reflecting on the memories. But for now, they're focused on making them.