On Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished what many thought to be impossible during the NHL’s salary cap era. They found a way to win back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
A tense Game 6 came to a dramatic conclusion when Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist scored the Cup-clinching goal with 1:35 remaining in the third period, giving Pittsburgh a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Carl Hagelin’s empty-net goal sealed the title for the Penguins, the fifth in franchise history and third since 2009. Pittsburgh became the first team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings to win back-to-back championships. They are also the first to accomplish the feat in the salary cap era started in 2005. Their three Cups during that time are tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the most since the cap was instituted.
Hornqvist’s goal occurred when he was able to knock the puck out of midair and deflect it off of Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s arm and into the net, stunning the noisy sold out crowd at Bridgestone Arena. Throughout the first 58-and-a-half minutes, both teams traded some solid scoring chances. Neither Rinne nor Penguins goalie Matt Murray flinched when called upon. However, this game wasn’t without some controversy.
During the second period, a shot by Filip Forsberg squeezed through Murray and sat in the crease, where Colton Sissons pounced on the rebound and put it into the net. Referee Kevin Pollock blew the play dead after he lost sight of the puck. Replays clearly showed that Murray never had control of it, as Pollock appeared to be out of position and was very quick to blow the play dead.
Despite that error, Nashville had their chances, as they received four power plays over the course of the final half of the game. One of them was an extended 5-on-3. However, the Predators came up empty-handed. Nashville failed to score during the final 123 minutes of the series.
With the victory, the Penguins have secured their legacy as one of the best teams of the salary cap era.
Last season, Pittsburgh’s scoring depth shone through, as they regularly outshot the competition en route to 2016’s title. This year, the Penguins’ offense was very top-heavy, as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel led the way in terms of offensive production in this postseason.
Last year, Murray helped backstop the Pens to a title. This season, Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury combined to come up with timely save after timely save for the Penguins. That goaltending was critical to Pittsburgh’s success in the playoffs, as they were pushed to Game 7’s against Washington and Ottawa. At times, the Predators outplayed the Penguins mightily, only to come up short when it mattered most. Crosby and Malkin have now secured their spots among the all-time greats, as the Pens’ two star centers each earned their third Stanley Cup ring. Crosby came away with his second straight Conn Smythe Trophy. While it’s not a guarantee that the Penguins will make it three in a row next season, the core of this team remains intact, meaning they’ll be a strong contender for the foreseeable future.
Despite the loss, the future is bright for the Nashville Predators.
Making their first every trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the Preds captured the attention of the hockey world by dominating the competition in the first three rounds. Their fanbase provided a raucous home-ice advantage that showed everyone across North America what the locals already knew: that Nashville is a legitimate hockey market.
There’s no reason to think the Predators can’t make another run next season. Their salary cap situation is stable. The team’s top four defensemen are all in their prime, with P.K. Subban being the elder statesman at the age of 28. Nashville’s top forwards, Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen, are just about to get into their prime. Even though Rinne struggled during the three games in Pittsburgh, his play was a large reason why Nashville made it this far. At the age of 34, he’s still capable of being their number one goalie for a few more years. Although they’re not a lock to make it back next year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nashville back in the thick of things in the postseason.