SAN JOSE, Calif. – Sidney Crosby let out a scream as he lifted the Stanley Cup above his head, a wide smile spread across his face.
The seven years of adversity since he last held the trophy were firmly in his past. The concussions that nearly derailed his career. The early playoff exits. The rough start to this season that led to a coach being fired.
Crosby and the Penguins are once again champions.
A kid no more and surrounded with new talent, Crosby set up Kris Letang’s go-ahead goal midway through the second period and Pittsburgh won the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history by beating the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in Game 6 on Sunday night.
“It wasn’t easy getting here, especially the way things started out,” Crosby said. “The first half wasn’t easy and I think everyone just stuck together, kept going and found some momentum there in March and continued to keep it going.”
Brian Dumoulin opened the scoring with a power-play goal and Patric Hornqvist added a late empty-netter. Matt Murray made 18 saves to give the Penguins a championship seven years to the day after they beat Detroit for their third title. The game ended when Crosby cleared the puck the length of the ice with San Jose on the power play, setting off a wild celebration.
All that was left was for Crosby to accept the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP and then the Stanley Cup.
“We tried to keep fighting and slowly started to turn things around,” he said. “Everyone has a part in this. It feels really good to win your last game of the season.”
Three nights after squandering a chance to become the first Pittsburgh team to win a title in front of the home fans in 56 years, the Penguins finished the job on the road just like they did in Minnesota (1991), Chicago (1992) and Detroit (2009) in past title runs.
The championship in Detroit was supposed to be the first of many for a team led by players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But a series of concussions cost Crosby almost a season and a half, and there were those playoff disappointments that included twice blowing 3-1 series leads. There was no second celebration in the Crosby era – until now.
“It’s so hard to win it year after year,” owner Mario Lemieux said. “For them to be able to come through this year and win their second Cup is big. Hopefully there’s a few more for them.”
This didn’t seem like it would be a season to remember back in early December when the Penguins were the near the bottom of the standings in the Eastern Conference and coach Mike Johnston was fired.
But led by coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins recovered to make the playoffs as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division after some shrewd moves by general manager Jim Rutherford, who put together the entire “HBK line” of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel over the past year as well as other key acquisitions.
Pittsburgh knocked off the New York Rangers in the first round, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington in round two and then rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to beat Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final.
“In the playoffs, suddenly we thought we could beat any team,” Malkin said. “We tried to play the same game we played in 2009.”
The Penguins were in control for almost the entire final. They did not trail until Game 5 at home and responded to a strong push from San Jose in the clincher to avoid a decisive seventh game. Pittsburgh held San Jose to just one shot on goal in the first 19 minutes of the third period to preserve the one-goal lead. The Penguins sealed it when Crosby blocked a shot from Marc-Edouard Vlasic that set up Hornqvist’s empty-netter.
“You dream your whole life for this,” said Kessel, the former Maple Leaf who led the Penguins with 22 points this postseason. “How can you ask for anything better than this? Winning the Cup is what your dream of and what you play for.”
Logan Couture scored the lone goal for the Sharks, who were making their first trip to the final in their 25-year history. Martin Jones made 24 saves and was San Jose’s best player for the series.
“The end is like hitting a wall,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “But only one team can win.”
While the season ended in disappointment, it also was a bit of a breakthrough for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest of a franchise that had been known for playoff collapses, most notably in 2014 when the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round to Los Angeles.
“We thought we had the team, going through the teams we did in the West,” Thornton said. “It’s just tough right now.”
There was an electric atmosphere before the final home game of the season in San Jose with fans starting their “Let’s Go Sharks!” chants well before the opening puck drop and an elaborate pregame light and video show firing up the fans. But the Penguins jumped ahead for the fifth time in six games this series after Dainius Zubrus was sent off for tripping when Crosby’s line didn’t allow San Jose to leave its own zone. Dumoulin took advantage when his point shot beat Jones for a rare soft goal allowed by the Sharks’ netminder.
The Sharks tied it early in the period when Couture beat Murray with a big shot for his 30th point of the postseason. Pittsburgh answered 1:19 later when Crosby sent a pass from behind the net to Letang, who beat Jones from a sharp angle to the short side to make it 2-1.
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