It's been seven years since the Pittsburgh Penguins appeared in the Stanley Cup Final and won it. During that time span, free agency and the passing of time itself has reduced the number of players remaining from that 2009 championship team to six guys. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz and Ben Lovejoy (who came back in a trade in 2015).
This season's run into the Stanley Cup Final has seen what many would call the "core group" of that Stanley Cup team mixed with veterans that were acquired since last July by General Manager Jim Rutherford and the youth that has been developed in Wilkes-Barre Scranton come together as a team that has strong depth offensively and a defense that combines older, veteran players like Lovejoy, Trevor Daley and Letang with younger players like Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz.
Conor Sheary's game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday night was a perfect example of that mix the Penguins have. Crosby wins the faceoff, Letang gets the puck on the left point, and young Sheary positions himself where his linemate and captain told him to be, and receives the puck in the high slot and beats Sharks goaltender Martin Jones in overtime to put the Penguins within two games of the franchises fourth Stanley Cup.
While Sidney Crosby (6 goals) and Evgeni Malkin (4 goals) have not been scoring at the rate fans expect them too, the two have had reinforcement from the likes of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. The "HBK Line" was brought together piece-by-piece by Rutherford. First Kessel when free agency opened July 1, followed by Bonino later that month, and nabbed Carl Hagelin in a trade from Anaheim on January 28 in exchange for David Perron. The trio have provided a good chunk of the team's offensive production in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kessel leads in scoring with 10 goals and has a total of 19 points through Game 2 of the Final. Hagelin is fifth with 14 points, one behind Malkin, and Bonino is tied with Crosby for total points (17) and two of his four goals have decided games this spring. The first coming in Game 6 of the second round in overtime to eliminate the Washington Capitals, and this past Monday in Game 1 of the Final with 2:33 left in the game to give the Penguins an early lead in the series.
His goal also gave us this wonderful call from Hockey Night Punjabi in Canada.
To give you an idea of the HBK line's contribution as of late, they scored in five of the seven games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and have goal scorers in the first two games of the Final (Bonino, Kessel).
Getting back to the rookies, give Matt Murray some love!
Murray was asked to hold down the fort when Marc-Andre Fleury was out with a concussion and has been consistent throughout the spring. His biggest game to date during the playoffs has to be Game 3 of the second round series against the Capitals, where he made 42 saves to hold off a late Washington comeback and help seal a 3-2 win that gave his team the series lead from that point forward. He faltered in Game 4 of the Lightning series and sat as Marc-Andre Fleury started Game 5. After a 3-2 loss in overtime and elimination looming, Sullivan went back to what people would call the "hot hand" in Murray, and the team has won the last four ever since.
You feel for Fleury. He was a major part of the team's Stanley Cup win in 2009 and is one of the reasons for the Penguins late season surge into the playoffs. But as stated in the last paragraph, in the playoffs, you go with that "hot hand".
Bryan Rust is another rookie that has shined at the most important times lately. His two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final made him a hero, and he tallied the first goal of the Stanley Cup Final four nights later.
Defensively, Kris Letang has been the rock during this playoff run. Letang was suspended for Game 4 of the Capitals series following a late hit to the head, but Trevor Daley, who was acquired during the season from Chicago in exchange for Rob Scuderi, stepped up in his absence, and was right behind Letang as one of the most important pieces of the defense. Unfortunately, Daley broke his ankle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final, and can only cheer on his team during the Final. Daley for Scuderi was quite the steal for Rutherford.
The other veteran defenseman, Ben Lovejoy, is not the same Lovejoy the Penguins had in 2009, and Rutherford trading Simon Despres to Anaheim for him last spring was met with backlash from fans. Despite this, he provides a veteran voice on defense.
I think I could sit here and write a personal paragraph on each player who has been in the lineup during the playoffs, but I think the point has been made. The Penguins are a deep squad that no longer relies on its starts to carry the load. In the years following their 2009 Cup win, when Crosby and Malkin were out with injuries or not finding the score sheet, other players stepped up (guys like Brian Gibbons) but it could not be sustained. Jim Rutherford's moves to bring in Kessel, Bonino and Hagelin helped the Penguins build a third line that could be called "Line 2B". The young guys who had been with Sullivan in the minors provided help on the bottom six, and I would be remissed if I left out Matt Cullen, who at 39 signed a one-year deal back in August. He, along with Eric Fehr, who signed on for three years in July, have provided a fourth line that goes beyond the expectations of a fourth unit.
The Penguins find themselves two wins away from raising the Stanley Cup for the first time since that 2009 title that enthralled fans here in Pittsburgh. Most of the names have changed, the remaining core guys like Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury are still here, but they have not been left to do it all themselves.