Sidney Crosby stood on the SAP Center ice, idly chatting with his parents, as if this were just one more regular ol’ family postgame debrief in a lifetime full of them. It wasn’t. This time, they were surrounded by the giddy chaos of Stanley Cup celebration: Matt Cullen’s kids sliding across the rink; Phil Kessel’s mom waving a little Penguins flag; Cuba Gooding Jr. milling around; Carl Hagelin body-checking the glass at the behest of the couple hundred Pittsburgh fans who celebrated behind it. But to look at Crosby and his parents, you wouldn’t know that the Penguins had just defeated the San Jose Sharks, 3–1, to win the Stanley Cup in six games, or that he had been named the postseason MVP.
In many ways, a quick pass that Crosby made from behind the net in the second period may have been the reason for both achievements. The Penguins took a 1–0 lead into the first intermission thanks to Brian Dumoulin’s power play goal, but six and a half minutes into the second, the Sharks’ Logan Couture evened the score. The teal-wearing fans went crazy. The game — and series — seemed rife with new possibility.
Just more than a minute later, however, Kris Letang danced around the offensive zone with the puck and put it on net. Crosby collected the rebound, skated behind the goal, and hit Letang so smoothly that it was hard not to think that the entire sequence had been orchestrated in advance, like Game 2’s overtime faceoff winner was said to be. If these sorts of rapid-response goals are known for “letting the air out of the building,” the SAP Center had just become a giant novelty whoopee cushion.
The goal was illustrative of Crosby’s increasingly vital behind-the-scenes role on the Penguins: Letang might have been the star of the show, but Crosby was backstage, feeding him the lines. (Quite fitting, really, on Tony Awards night.) Until then, the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable postseason player had been, to an extent, up for grabs: Should it go to Kessel, for his 10 goals this postseason? To rookie backup goalie Matt Murray, as worthy an understudy as there ever was? To Letang, for leading the Penguins defense? Or to Crosby, for being Crosby? Following his assist, you could hear people murmuring to each other in the press box, and you could tell they had come up with their answer.
Seven years ago, Crosby and the Penguins seemed poised for ongoing greatness, making two straight Cup final appearances and defeating a Detroit Red Wings powerhouse on their second try. Pittsburgh’s core was a bunch of guys in their early 20s with their whole lives ahead. Their coach at the time, Dan Bylsma, was a rising star.
“At a young age, going back-to-back like we did, you just think it’s going to be an annual thing,” said Crosby, his MVP trophy sitting next to him on the dais, his beard far less patchy than it had famously been in 2009. “With the core we [had], you think everyone’s going to stay together, the team’s not going to change. But it does. That’s kind of the reality of playing hockey.”
The Penguins didn’t make it back to the final until this season. But even a few months ago, there were few indications that this would be the team to end that drought. In December, the struggling Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan. By mid-January, the still-struggling Penguins were in 12th place in the East. Crosby began the season by scoring just one goal in October. But he, and the rest of the team, began to hit their stride by the All-Star break, and by the time they reached the postseason they were skating full speed ahead.
“I could tell as we went through this postseason that [Crosby] knew that our team had something special,” Sullivan said at the postgame press conference. “He was going to will this thing.”
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who was at the helm of the Carolina Hurricanes when they won the Cup in 2006 (Pittsburgh’s Cullen was a member of that team as well) told a small group of reporters that while he thought teams could win the Cup in a number of ways, this particular team was built to overwhelm opponents with its speed; he acquired Kessel last summer and speed-demon Hagelin in January with this in mind. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said that Pittsburgh’s speed was only part of its strength. “It’s not just their speed; they have good sticks, too,” DeBoer said at his press conference. “They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution.”
DeBoer likened the end of the Sharks season to “hitting a wall.” Patrick Marleau compared it to “being hit by a truck.” Joe Thornton said that after the Sharks had gotten through the West, “we thought we had the team.” Couture remarked that when you fantasize about playing in the Cup final as a kid, you’re never the one on the losing team.
And so on Sunday night, seven years (and three coaches and umpteen Crosby linemates) after the Pittsburgh Penguins last lived up to those childhood daydreams, they did it again. The crowd booed Gary Bettman, as is the tradition, and Bettman handed the Cup to the captain, as is the tradition, and Crosby handed it off to Trevor Daley — later, he said this was to honor Daley’s mother, who is battling cancer — and then, as is the tradition, everyone got their turn.