Final Take: The 2015-2016 Pittsburgh Penguins Season

Back in December, if you have told me the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to become Stanley Cup Champions by the time June comes, I would have not believed it. When the 2015 calendar year ended, the Penguins were 18-15-4, and didn’t even look like a playoff contending team. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins, despite all their successes during that 7-year span, hit the proverbial glass ceiling in the playoffs, losing in the first round three times. the second round twice, and advancing to the Eastern Conference Final during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, only to be swept in four straight games to the Boston Bruins. But when the calendar flipped to 2016, the journey to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fourth Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history started to write itself. And it all began with a major blockbuster trade in July.

On the first day of free agency, Jim Rutherford made a huge splash in trading for Toronto Maple Leafs goal-scorer Phil Kessel. A few weeks after acquiring Kessel, a trade with the Vancouver Canucks exchanged Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino. Hope for the Penguins didn’t come early as they started the season dropping their first three games. then a 6-4-2 November didn’t bring any more optimism. After a 3-2 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings on December 11, the Penguins were 15-10-3, which was the 12th best record in the Eastern Conference at the time. Penguins fans knew that eminent change was needed if they were going to contend. The Penguins went in a different direction, firing head coach Mike Johnston and promoting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Sullivan to Penguins interim head coach. Just before their next game against the Washington Capitals, another move was made when veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who was in his second stint with the Penguins, was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Trevor Daley. Daley struggled in Chicago, only registering 6 assists in 29 games played, and knew that success wouldn’t come with a team that won three Stanley Cup Championships in the last seven seasons. In the first fifteen games played under Sullivan, the Penguins were 5-6-4, and were still battling for a wild-card spot. On January 16, a trade with the Anaheim Ducks proved vital to what was a bout to come. The Penguins received speedy forward Carl Hagelin in exchange for forward David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening. After the trade, the Penguins started to heat up, and there was no turning back.

The Penguins went on a 28-10-1 tear after the Hagelin acquisition, and finished the season 48-26-8, which was good to finish second in the Metropolitan Division, in spite of injuries to Evgeni Malkin, who missed 26 games in the final 2 1/2 months of the season. After a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators on March 31, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was diagnosed with a concussion. Matt Murray, who began the season as the starting goaltender in Wilkes-Barre, started four of the Penguins’ final five games of the season. He won all four of his starts as the Penguins were ready to face the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the first round, the normal backup goaltender to Fleury, Jeff Zatkoff, started for the Penguins. After a 4-1 home loss to the Rangers in Game 2, Murray became the starting goaltender. After beating the Rangers in five games, the next opponent for the Penguins was the Presidents’ Trophy winner and Metropolitan Division champion Washington Capitals. A huge underdog to the Capitals, the Penguins beat the Capitals in six games, and it was all due to a line that was supposed to be their third, but played like they were the first line. The line that consisted of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel suddenly became the talk of Pittsburgh and the entire sports world. Dubbed the HBK Line by WXDX-FM afternoon host, former World Championship Wrestling commentator, Mark Madden, the HBK Line was crucial in the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup. Combined during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel had 20 goals and 56 points. The HBK Line even went up as the namesake od a sandwich at one of the most famous restaurants in the Steel City: Primanti Bros. decided to make a combination sandwich combining ham, bacon, and kielbasa, into one of their signature sandwiches that has fries, slaw and tomatoes inside. In the Eastern Conference Final against the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the Penguins split the first four games of the series. In Game 4, after the Lightning had a commanding 4-0 lead, Fleury relieved Murray. Heading into Game 5, a dilemma was brought forth: should Fleury start Game 5? They took that chance, and eventually lost the game 4-3, sending the series back to Tampa with a chance for the Lightning to return to the Stanley Cup Final. In Game 6, Murray once again became the no. 1 goalie for the Penguins. They took Game 6, 5-2, and sent the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 7. In that game, rookie Bryan Rust scored both goals for the Penguins as they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

In the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins faced the San Jose Sharks, who finally broke through under first-year head coach Peter DeBoer. The Penguins held fort on home ice taking the first two games of the Final. After splitting the next two games in San Jose, the Penguins returned to Pittsburgh with a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice. The party would have to wait as the Sharks forced a Game 6 back in San Jose with a 4-2 win. In their last game wearing Vegas Gold, the Penguins, much like they did in Minnesota in 1991, Chicago in 1992, and Detroit in 2009, won the Stanley Cup on the road with a 3-1 win over the Sharks in San Jose. Captain Sidney Crosby was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the Playoffs. As Crosby raised up the Cup, the first person he passed the Cup to was Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final. Since being traded, Daley had six goals, 16 assists in 53 games played in the regular season, and had a goal and five assists in 15 games played in the playoffs. Three days after their triumph, the Penguins celebrated down the Boulevard of The Allies in front of an estimated crowd of over 400,000. The HBK Line was honored with a WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt sent by WWE COO Paul “Triple H” Levesque, and Nick Bonino’s game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was saluted by the man who called the game in Punjabi for Canada, Harnarayan Singh. The mix of speed, skill, and the emergence of unknowns like Murray, Rust, and even Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary made the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins so special, and team that looked like they were done for back in December, now sits on top of the hockey world as Stanley Cup Champions.

Well, it has been another amazing season. Unless there’s something that interests me, I’m not gonna do much posting here this summer. So I hope you enjoy the summer. The next time you probably hear from me will be during the World Cup of Hockey. So until then, I’m signing out.

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