It's been what some would call a fairy tale season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and nothing less than an emotional roller coaster. With an inconsistent start to the season and a team full of new guys, the Penguins weren't even projected to make the playoffs. The months rolled by and December brought along even harder times as fan-favorite veteran Pascal Dupuis was sadly forced to hang up his jersey for good due to a blood clot issue. In complete distress from their season so far, they fired head coach Mike Johnston and brought on a man that many Penguin fans believe changed everything.
Suddenly, the Penguins started making the climb to the top and landed second in their division - playoff eligible. It wouldn't be an easy road, though. First, they were to face the New York Rangers - a team that plays with what I personally would like to call "distasteful physicality." After that success in just five games, it was on to the number one rivals and number one team in the NHL — the Washington Capitals. The battle of Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin continued for 6 games until the Penguins came out with the victory. Next were the Eastern Conference Finals where the Tampa Bay Lightning fought the Penguins harder than any team yet — landing them in a Game 7.
So now we're here in the middle of the Stanley Cup Finals with the San Jose Sharks, but not without moments that turned this playoff run into a story. Let's take a look and recap on what exactly has made the Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs so memorable and emotional, including some miraculous moments.
Goaltender Matt Murray is a rookie.
Let's start with the story of Matt Murray — a 21-year-old rookie who stepped in when first string goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was injured before the playoffs. Murray took control of the situation and has led the Penguins to the Cup with his consistency and precision. He has only been replaced in one game of the playoffs by Fleury and currently has a save percentage of .926. The team and city have rallied around Murray - he is the breath of fresh air the team needed.
Nick Bonino finishes the Washington Capitals with an OT goal.
Bonino! Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!
This guy has been a force in the playoffs during his first year with the Penguins. This moment about sums up how important he's been. There's nothing like winning an overtime clincher.
(If you don't quite get the reference at the beginning, check out this clip from Hockey Night In Punjabi which has become quite humorous among the Penguins and their fans.)
Sidney Crosby ties the Eastern Conference Finals with an OT goal.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - there's always something extra special about your captain scoring. Especially when it's Sidney Crosby. Even more so when it's in overtime in the playoffs. It's great to see the fire in him and see how he leads when his team needs him the most.
Bryan Rust scores both goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Game 7. The ultimate pressure is on. That wasn't any issue for Bryan Rust, who stepped it up and scored the only two goals for the Penguins that ultimately won them the right to go to the Stanley Cup. A recent article stated that after the game, Nick Bonino leaned over to Rust on the bench and asked him what it felt like to be a Pittsburgh hero - and let me tell you, everyone really does see him that way.
Conor Sheary ends Game 2 of the Finals in OT.
Another rookie shows what he's made of. Sidney Crosby called the play before the face-off and it was a dream come true. He won the draw, passed it to defenseman Kris Letang, and Conor Sheary executed the perfect shot past Sharks goaltender Martin Jones. The best part is when the camera shows a close up of Sheary and Letang celebrating - their faces lit up like never before.
Coach Sullivan: "They have become a team in the truest sense of the word."
I could barely read the article where this quote was pulled from without tearing up. Sullivan commented this about his team after the Penguins won the Eastern Conference Finals. The recognition and encouragement Sullivan has provided is unlike anything I've ever seen from a coach. There's something about the way he comments on things that gives you such a sense of truth. This is a guy that truly believes in his team - win or lose. He has witnessed everything that this group has become. It's easy to tell that he's all business, so when that touch of sentiment shines through in his words, it puts our hearts in our throats.
As I write this, the Penguins are currently winning in the Stanley Cup series against the Sharks, and as a true hockey fan — I know that anything can happen. But win or lose, the Penguins and fans have so much to be proud of. They've turned a group of guys into leaders, heroes, and a team that plays with heart and class until the last second.