By Rob Ficiur
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup in a roundabout way. The team that dominated all six games of the Stanley Cup final did four things that most championship teams avoid doing. In the end the Penguins have their championship, and other teams wonder if this roundabout way might be the new right way to win a Stanley Cup.
1. Seven year wait
When Sidney Crosby raised the 2016 Stanley Cup, it was seven years to the day since “Sid the Kid” raised his first championship trophy. No team captain in NHL history has ever gone seven years between championships. Looking back in history we see that Colorado’s Joe Sakic went four years (1996-2000) between raising the trophy. Scott Stevens went five years five years between New Jersey’s 1995 championship and the next one in 2000.
Why has no captain gone this long between championships? Sidney Crosby was made captain of the Penguins a month after his 20th birthday. Traditionally captains have more experience than that young Crosby. Most players are not captains of their team for more than a five year period of time. Shane Doan of Arizona is the longest serving NHL captain. Only Doan (2003) and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews were their team’s captains when Crosby raised his first Stanley Cup in 2009.
2. Slumping Sid or Sid the Super Star –
Sidney Crosby was in a big slump early this season. On December 12, he had six goals, fourteen assists in twenty eight games. He was on pace for a career low 58 point season. Never in his 11 year career has Sidney Crosby scored less than a point a game. Was he suffering from unknown injuries that limited his prolific ability? Fans and media had to wonder if Crosby would ever resemble his super star past.
In the final forty eight games of the season Crosby had 30 goals and 35 assists. At that rate he was on pace for a 111 points season, almost double what he did the first two months of the year. A slumping superstar is not the way to win a championship. To find out what changed, see #3.
3. On December 12, 2015 the Penguins fired coach Mike Johnson and hired Mike Sullivan. Under Johnson the Penguins were on pace for 96 points. They sat out of a playoff spot when the change was made.
Who was this Mike Sullivan the Penguins brought in? He was Boston’s head coach for two seasons more than a decade ago. He won no playoff rounds in his Bruin time, so why pick him? Sullivan had the Penguins farm team off to a 23-18-5 record. Almost immediately his new system changed the Penguins fortune. They were the hottest team in the NHL coming into the playoffs and they never cooled down.
Only three other times in recent memory has an NHL won the Stanley Cup after making a mid-season coaching change. These winners were: Daryl Sutter (LA 2012), Larry Robinson (New Jersey 2000) and Dan Bylsma who led Crosby and his team to that 2009 championship. Since it worked in 2009, maybe firing a coach mid-season did not mean the Penguins were giving up hope for a Stanley Cup in the spring.
4. Rookie Goal wins again
In recent years Penguins fans lost confidence in 2009 Stanley Cup goalie Marc Andre Fleury. His less than average playoff performances helped lead early elimination for the Penguins. In 2015-2016 Fleury was having the best season of his career. His play kept the team going when Crosby and others were struggling. When Fleury got a concussion late in the season, it looked like the Penguins would lose because Fleury was lost to the team.
Enter 21 year old rookie goalie Matt Murray. After nearly two seasons of great play in the American Hockey League, the Penguins had to rely on a rookie goalie for the playoffs. Before the playoffs Murray had 13 NHL games under his belt. His fifteen playoff wins was enough to make him the fourth rookie goalie in modern times to win the Stanley Cup. The other rookie cup winners were: Ken Dryden (1971 with six NHL regular season games), Cam Ward (2006 Carolina Hurricanes with 26 NHL regular season games) and Patrick Roy (1986 Montreal Canadiens with a full 47 regular season games before the playoffs.
Pittsburgh fans did not get all they wanted. When the team clinched the Stanley Cup in San Jose it was the fourth time the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup on the road. Not since the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series has a Pittsburgh team claimed a championship on home soil. Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1979 and 1971 World Series on the road. Penguins are happy they won on the road or at home. As Sidney Crosby and team found out winning that next championship can take a long time.