Final Take: The 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins Season

When I started this blog before the 2011-12 NHL season, the one question that hadn’t been answered was can an NHL team repeat as Stanley Cup champions? Here’s the results of defending Stanley Cup Champions the year after they won in the post-lockout era:

  • 2006: Tampa Bay Lightning — finished 8th in the Eastern Conference; lost to the Ottawa Senators in five games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
  • 2007: Carolina Hurricanes — finished 11th in the Eastern Conference; failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • 2008: Anaheim Ducks — finished 4th in the Western Conference; lost to the Dallas Stars in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
  • 2009: Detroit Red Wings — finished 2nd in the Western Conference; lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final.
  • 2010: Pittsburgh Penguins — finished 4th in the Eastern Conference; lost to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
  • 2011: Chicago Blackhawks — finished 8th in the Western Conference; lost to the Vancouver Canucks in seven games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
  • 2012: Boston Bruins — finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference; lost to the Washington Capitals in seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
  • 2013: Los Angeles Kings — finished 5th in the Western Conference; lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in five games in the Western Conference Final.
  • 2014: Chicago Blackhawks — finished 3rd in the Central Division; lost to the Los Angeles Kings in seven games in the Western Conference Final.
  • 2015: Los Angeles Kings— finished 4th in the Pacific Division; failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • 2016: Chicago Blackhawks — finished 3rd in the Central Division; lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games in the First Round.

In the last four years, both the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks both had multiple chances to repeat, but didn’t. The Detroit Red Wings came the closest to repeating, but lost in seven games to the Penguins. So what made the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins the first repeat Stanley Cup champions in nineteen seasons, and the first to do so in the salary cap era? Despite being riddled with injuries all season long, players stepped up, whether it be from Wilkes-Barre (Jake Guentzel), or from somewhere else (Ron Hainsey), and battled their way through the NHL’s toughest division, the Metropolitan Division — where all four playoff-qualified teams had a 100+ point season. They began the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a tough First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They went past the Jackets, who were led by the best regular-season goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) and  best regular-season head coach (John Tortorella), in six games. In the Second Round, they once again faced the Presidents’ Trophy winners — the team with the best regular-season record, the Washington Capitals. It was a very difficult Second Round series that went the distance, but once again, the Penguins prevailed. In the Eastern Conference Final, they faced the Ottawa Senators — a defensive-minded team that dispatched the Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens in the First Round six games, and then went on to beat the New York Rangers in the Second Round in six games. The Penguins looked to be in trouble when Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled in Game 3. But Matt Murray, the goaltender who led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup last year, took the reins behind the pipes, and helped the Penguins in this back-and-forth series that went the distance. That series ended in epic fashion when Chris Kunitz buried the winning goal in the second overtime of Game 7. In the Stanley Cup Final, they took on the Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, who made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history by upsetting the Central Division champion Chicago Blackhawks in the First Round in four straight games, then dispatched the St. Louis Blues in six games the Second Round, and then dispatched the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference in six games. Both teams held serve throughout the first five games, the last one was a 6-0 thrashing that saw Pekka Rinne being pulled from the net for the second straight game in Pittsburgh. And just like in 1991 in Bloomington, Minnesota, 1992 in Chicago,, 2009 in Detroit, and last year in San Jose, the Penguins became the first team in the salary-cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions when former Predator Patric Hornqvist buried the game-winning goal past Rinne with 1:35 left in regulation time. Carl Hagelin’s empty-net goal sealed the deal for the Pens. With seven points (one goal and six assists) in the Stanley Cup Final, Sidney Crosby joined Bobby Orr, Bernie Parent, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Patrick Roy to  win the Conn Smythe Trophy multiple times, with Parent, Lemieux, and himself winning it in consecutive years.

Two years ago, I wrote why the Chicago Blackhawks could be a modern-day dynasty. After what happened last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins just supplanted the Blackhawks as the standard in the NHL. They did something what the Hawks, the Kings, Red Wings, and to a further extent, the 2001 New Jersey Devils, and the 2000 Stars didn’t do: successfully repeat as  Stanley Cup champions, and to do it where a budget is enforced is a rare feat. Not to take away what the Blackhawks have done by winning three Stanley Cup championships in a six-year span, but repeating as champions always — ALWAYS — trumps winning a x-amount of championships in a specific time-span. And they’re not going to be done in the future. Las Vegas sports books have the Penguins as a early favorite to win the Stanley Cup in 2018, and hopefully become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cup Championships since the New York Islanders of the early 1980s. You might love them, or you may hate them, but you better give the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins the respect it deserves after what they’ve done to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Repeating as champions is a very rare feat in sports, so I want you to soak it all in really good, because this is a feat that might never, ever happen again.

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