The Penguins were arguably the most dominant team in the 2016 NHL postseason. They dispatched the New York Rangers in five games, topped the Washington Capitals — the best team in the league this season — in six games, then iced the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games to win the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh outshot their opponents in 13 of its final 14 games and controlled play for most of their postseason run.
It was an epic performance by a team that looked to be out of the playoffs entirely in December. The Pens were stuck in the 8, 9, or 10 spots in the East, playing uninspired, boring hockey that misused star players and never allowed the team to find a rhythm. But after a coaching change, Pittsburgh found new life and were the hottest team in the NHL heading into the postseason.
Every member of the team had a job to do in its run to the Stanley Cup, and they all did it well! Here are the top five reasons the Penguins will spend the summer as NHL champs.
There is no denying that Mike Sullivan is the biggest reason for the triumph. When he replaced Mike Johnston behind the bench in December, the Penguins were not even in a playoff contention. Exactly six months later, the Penguins became Stanley Cup champions. Sullivan’s mentality changed the entire team culture — he got players to buy into his coaching style —and got the Penguins going again. The Penguins finished the regular season 33-16-5 under Sullivan.
He is simply the best hockey player in the world. He was all over the ice making plays. Crosby had 19 points in 24 playoff games. Three of those points came in the first playoff game against the Rangers, and he finished the playoffs with two assists in the clinching game against San Jose. He also won his first career Conn Smythe trophy for the playoff MVP, becoming only the 10th player in NHL history to win both the Conn Smythe and the Hart Trophy as league MVP. It is hard to argue with that decision by the voters.
Every Stanley Cup winning team has a rock-solid goalie at the back. But not many of them have a rookie holding down that position. Murray was the starting goalie in 15 out of the 16 Pittsburgh playoff wins, posting a .923 save percentage in the postseason after just being called up from AAA Wilkes-Barre Scranton. Murray saved 531 out of the 575 shots he faced in the playoffs.
Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel made up the Pens’ third line in the playoffs. But it was at times more productive than the top two lines, anchored by Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. A lot of this goes back to Mike Sullivan for putting these three together. Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel teamed up on the same line, became “HBK,” and dominated. Hagelin had four points in the finals and 16 in the postseason. Bonino scored the series-clinching goal in overtime of game six against Washington in the second round, and the winner late in game one of the Stanley Cup Finals. Kessel had 22 points in 24 playoff games to cap it all off.
The Penguins had a 4-3 record in overtime during these playoffs, and the ones they won were extremely timely. They took games four and six against Washington, with Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bonino scoring the goals. They avoided an 0-2 hole against the Lightning with a Sidney Crosby winner in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals. And Conor Sheary scored in Game Two against San Jose in the extra frame.
Photos: Keith Srakocic/AP (parade), Rocky Widner/NHLI via Getty Images (Sullivan), David E. Klutho (Crosby), Christian Petersen/Getty Images (Murray), Justin K. Aller/Getty Images (HBK line), Justin K. Aller/Getty Images (overtime celebration)