After face rubs and flying water bottles, it was a surprise punch that ended the Stanley Cup final.
With less than two minutes remaining in a scoreless Game 6 that seemed destined for overtime, Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz ripped a shot from the blue line that careened off the end boards. The puck rebounded off the back of the net and hung in midair for a split second before Patric Hornqvist, from behind the goal line, banked it in off of the hip of Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. For what seemed like the first time this series, the Nashville crowd went silent. Pittsburgh would add a Carl Hagelin empty-netter to finalize the 2–0 scoreline, and the Pens won the Stanley Cup final series, 4–2.
A slew of milestones were achieved: The Penguins became the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since the Detroit Red Wings won it in 1996–97 and 1997–98 — and the only team to repeat since the salary cap was instituted in 2005. Captain Sidney Crosby won his third Cup and a second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the first player to do so since the guy who sits in his team’s owner’s box. Coach Mike Sullivan, who looks like he interrogates petty criminals in his spare time, became the first American coach with multiple Cup wins. Pens goalie Matt Murray, still technically a rookie, hoisted his second Cup after holding the Preds scoreless over the final two games.
Or did he? Preds fans were livid when an apparent goal by Nashville center Colton Sissons was waved off by a quick whistle in the opening minutes of the second period:
Although the referee has the right to blow a play dead when he loses sight of the puck, the Sissons goal — according to the rule book — could have been reviewed. You’ll recall that in the series opener, P.K. Subban had a first-period goal overturned by a seemingly bogus offside review. The questionable no-goals in Games 1 and 6 — both of which would’ve given the Predators 1–0 leads in games they ultimately lost — will not be forgotten by the Nashville faithful (nor the legions of Penguins haters who feel that the league favors Pittsburgh).
History, on the other hand, will remember only the Penguins’ championship mettle. Sid was a predictable choice for MVP, but his team had no shortage of heroes. Evgeni Malkin led the league in playoff points (28); rookie Jake Guentzel had the most goals (13); goalie Marc-Andre Fleury recorded Pittsburgh’s first nine playoff wins before Murray took over in the conference final; and the Pens’ no-name defense outplayed Nashville’s heralded blue line over six games. Throughout the entire playoffs, Pittsburgh calmly withstood changes in momentum, quickly bounced back from bad performances, and always got a timely goal when it needed it. We’ve heard a lot lately about the unpredictability of the NHL playoffs vis-à-vis the NBA postseason, but in the end, the Pens are repeat winners, and it feels almost preordained.
Nashville shouldn’t feel too glum. The Predators are set up to be a force for years to come, and should be among the favorites in the West next season. “We’re gonna be back here again next year,” said team talisman Subban. I wouldn’t doubt him. As for their boisterous fans? It’s only right that we give them the last word on this NHL season.