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This story appears in the June 20, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
In keeping with the trait most responsible for their current status as 2016 Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins emptied their bench in speedy fashion. The clock at SAP Center was still seconds from hitting zero when forward Patric Hornqvist, whose empty-netter with 1:02 left sealed a 3–1 victory over San Jose in Game 6, said to hell with waiting and leaped over the dasher boards. Only winger Eric Fehr, who had been whistled for high-sticking and imprisoned by a stingy penalty box operator, arrived late to the pile of woo-hooing teammates forming atop goaltender Matt Murray. “I told the guy to open the gate early,” Fehr says. “I didn’t want to miss out.” He would have time to catch up.
Seven years to the day after their last championship, this waddle of eager Penguins only passably resembles the team that beat the Red Wings in 2009. Yes, familiar stars like center Evgeni Malkin (three points in Games 4 and 5), defenseman Kris Letang (a hand in four game-winners) and Conn Smythe Trophy recipient Sidney Crosby (two primary helpers in Game 6) lit up the Cup finals. But Pittsburgh’s supporting cast proved critical too.
Take the members of the team’s soul-crushing and lung-shredding HBK Line—Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel—who all arrived by trade over the past 11 months. Or a defense corps of relative unknowns, which held firm against San Jose’s dynamic attack and kept leading scorers Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton to four points combined. Including Murray, who entered the playoffs with 13 career NHL appearances and then tied the rookie record with 15 victories, four lineup mainstays began the season in the minors. As did coach Mike Sullivan, who was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last Dec. 12 to replace Mike Johnston. “You have to have a special way about you to coach a team like this. You have many different personalities,” general manager Jim Rutherford says. “But he figured out a way to do it.”
Reconstructed by Rutherford, the first GM in a half century to earn rings with multiple teams (Carolina in 2006), the group dashing onto the ice on Sunday in some ways model the modern-day NHL success story—swift and deep up front, sturdy and responsible on the blue line, dominant in possessing the puck. If not for San Jose goalie Martin Jones’s 44 saves in Game 5, the Penguins could have treated a sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center and the 20,000 more on the streets outside to Pittsburgh’s first major professional championship clinched on home soil since the Pirates in 1960. But no big deal. In Game 6 defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s blast put the Penguins up 1–0, Letang’s short slapper beat Jones midway through the second period, San Jose mustered only two shots in the third, and Hornqvist hit an empty net.
Soon after the final horn, the Penguins were walled in by reporters and relatives at center ice, posing for pictures with the Cup. They were savoring the moment. Only Stanley could slow them down.
Alongside his bags and booming Bostonian accent, Sullivan arrived from the American Hockey League with a sturdy plan to fix the Penguins. He had known he might get promoted, tipped off by Rutherford a few weeks before as the Penguins languished outside playoff position and their captain was mired in a scoring slump. “I had given him a heads‑up, talked to him about what he would do with the team,” Rutherford says. Together, they identified the same issue: “We had to change the speed,” says the GM.
Sullivan tweaked the Penguins’ breakouts, emphasizing quick exits to the forwards and north-south raids on opposing backcheckers. “This is more aggressive,” says assistant GM Bill Guerin, who was on Crosby’s wing on the 2009 Cup team. “We’re not just going to play a nice game. We’re going to throw our speed at you every night. That was the attitude: We’re coming.”
Indeed, it was rather rude to allow the Sharks so little time to react; of Pittsburgh’s 11 goals at five-on-five in the series, nine were scored within 11 seconds of the puck entering the offensive zone. Sullivan had instructed his charges before Game 3 to play at “an uncomfortably high pace,” hallmarked by high-arcing passes from defensemen that turned breakouts into fly routes. “There’s always a guy open,” defenseman Justin Schultz says. “You’ve just got to find them.”
The most obvious beneficiary of Sullivan’s arrival was Crosby, who averaged 1.12 points per game since the coaching change and assisted twice in the Cup clincher. But much is also owed to the roster adjustments Rutherford made after hiring Sullivan. On Dec. 14 he traded for defenseman Trevor Daley from Chicago, a hidden gem considering the price (36-year-old veteran Rob Scuderi). Rookie wingers Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who both played under Sullivan in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, were recalled into top six roles. “That was a real key, that he knew the young guys and they knew him,” Rutherford says. “They had confidence in the coach, and he had confidence in them.” Finally, in mid-January, he brought in Hagelin from Anaheim, with two of the fleetest feet in the league. “He fit what we were trying to do,” Guerin says.
Like San Jose defenseman Brent Burns’s plaid suits, the results were impossible to miss. Rust shone with two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Sheary whipped the overtime goal that ended Game 2 against San Jose. An earlier injury to Malkin spawned the HBK Line, which finished the playoffs with 15 even-strength goals. Justin Schultz, the third-pair defenseman acquired from Edmonton on Feb. 27, led all Pittsburgh blueliners in 5-on-5 shot attempt differential (57.05%), and as a group the Penguins outshot San Jose by 67, the largest margin in a Cup finals since Detroit outshot the Penguins 222–142 over six games in 2008. They also pestered Burns and his fellow Sharks blueliners by blocking 22.7 shots per game, including one from Crosby that sprung Hornqvist for the empty-netter on Sunday. “They have the team makeup,” Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon says, “and they’re playing to their advantages.”
Of course this ignores the biggest reclamation project in Pittsburgh, the winger who kept blinking fast and rubbing his face during the postgame celebration, as if he couldn’t believe it was really happening.
With all due respect to the beard-tugging tussle between Thornton and Blues center David Backes, Nashville defenseman Roman Josi’s dive into his opponent’s bench to avoid a too-many-men penalty, and the stray black cat—later dubbed Jo Pawvelski—found roaming onto the SAP Center ice before warmups during the second round, the funniest moment of the 2016 playoffs came from a microphone and a misunderstanding.
Not long after Pittsburgh beat Tampa Bay in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 18, NBC’s Pierre McGuire interviewed Kessel on the Penguins’ bench. The first question concerned Hagelin’s impact on Kessel. “We read well off each other, and he’s a lot of fun to play with,” he said, in typical Kesselian fashion. Then McGuire, thinking Kessel was still fatigued from the 4–2 win, asked, “How’s your breath?” Startled, Kessel glanced down and stammered for a moment. Collecting himself, he answered with perfect sincerity, teeth bared in a broad grin: “It’s not good, eh?” They both laughed. “No,” McGuire scrambled, “I meant in terms of conditioning!”
The clip went viral. The next morning teammates placed an industrial-sized jug of Listerine atop Kessel’s locker stall and hid packs of gum in every nook and cranny of his equipment. His self-diagnosed halitosis tickled people across the whole organization. The exchange, the Penguins felt, broadcast a personable side of Kessel that usually stays hidden from the public. “There’s a mystery about him,” goalie Jeff Zatkoff says. “It’s tough for me to explain because you guys don’t really know him. He’s loose. We’re privileged to see that.” What hadn’t been broadcast: McGuire advised Kessel beforehand to flash a little personality. “Show people who you are, show people what you’re about,” McGuire told him. “Have some fun with this. Have a blast.”
The 28-year-old Kessel is shy. “Phil’s best year would be: I scored 35 goals, I’m a plus-player, I win a Stanley Cup, and I never do one interview,” says Brian Burke, the former Maple Leafs GM who acquired Kessel from the Bruins in September 2009. “That comes off as aloofness. It comes off as, I don’t care. But he does care. He just doesn’t care what’s written about him.” In Toronto a lot was written about him. “I think at times it got to Phil,” says David Quinn, Kessel’s coach in 2003–04 with the U.S. National Development Program. “Some people can be Johnny Carson. Some people want to be Ed McMahon. Phil’s a lot more comfortable being Ed McMahon.”
Burke remembers Kessel hustling to greet cancer survivors who visited the Toronto locker room. (Kessel had overcome testicular cancer as a Bruins rookie in 2006.) “He’d make a beeline for these kids,” Burke says. “Then the media would come in, and he’d leave.”
On team flights, movie watchers and book readers are often interrupted by Kessel’s boisterous trash talk during card games. “He thinks he’s a player,” Zatkoff says. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job at humbling him.” After the trade that brought Kessel to Pittsburgh last July 1, Rutherford watched him train in Ontario, and then they ate lunch at “some health food place.” They talked for hours about hockey history. “When I first met him,” Rutherford says, “I couldn’t believe how much he cared about the game.”
Kessel has fit into Pittsburgh’s team culture, but his on-ice contributions have been most conspicuous. In the playoffs he led the Penguins with 98 shots and 22 total points. He tapped in Bonino’s backdoor feed for Pittsburgh’s lone regulation goal in Game 2; his wrist shot off the rush in Game 4 bounced hard off Jones’s pads, setting up defenseman Ian Cole’s goal; and his slick power-play pass later that night found Malkin’s stick at the goalmouth.
Unnoted on the score sheet are the two posts he struck with a single shot in Game 5, the praise from Sullivan for developing “a complete two-way game” and the reason Rutherford cites for the team’s turnaround: “It started with Kessel.”
Now here he was, pumping the Cup so vigorously over his head that it appeared the silver might shake off, accommodating anyone who approached for an interview. He smiled and laughed a lot, shrugging when asked how everything felt. “How do you describe it? How can you think of this?” he said. He peeked over his left shoulder, at the Pittsburgh fans pounding on the glass, chanting his name. He obliged with a fist pump before turning back. “Sorry,” he laughed. “What were you saying?”
No misunderstanding here. Just Phil Kessel, Stanley Cup champion.