The Penguins played without their best defenseman Kris Letang all through the playoffs. And Pittsburgh still won. The Penguins played without their best goaltender, Matt Murray for nearly three quarters of the playoffs. And Pittsburgh still won. They played without Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL for one game when he had a concussion. And Pittsburgh still won. They are that good.
Recently the NHL listed its top teams of all time. This team belongs on that list somewhere. The one-two combination of Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin plus Matt Murray in the nets has no counterpart in the current NHL. Murray has been the missing piece of the puzzle. The goaltender who finally gave the Penguins consistent championship playoff goaltending after years of being in the wilderness with the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. He shut out the Nashville Predators in the last two games of the final. Since he became their regular goaltender, it’s been two Stanley Cups and counting.
And more. There was Chris Kunitz, who played the game of his life just when his team needed him the most, the double overtime, 7th game thriller against gutsy Ottawa. There was Phil Kessel chipping in. A new star emerged who came up big in the playoffs, Jake Guentzel. Unlike the new Chicago players who were a distinct fizzle when their veteran stars struggled, Guentzel gives the Penguins hope for the future.
Pittsburgh is now the most successful American expansion franchise ever. They have now won 5 Stanley Cups, one more than the New York Islanders. I still prefer the Islanders as the greatest American expansion franchise because they won four Cups in a row, a much more difficult feat to accomplish that has only been done twice before, by Montreal. But this current Penguins team has given me the impression that they have possibility of matching that feat, if not exceeding it.
Pittsburgh now joins Edmonton as the expansion team that has won the most Stanley Cups since expansion began in 1967, with five. Ironic for a franchise that started out so poorly. Pittsburgh was the worst of the six teams that joined the NHL in 1967. They had the worst team in those years, the poorest attendance and people wondered if the team would survive. Eventually the team would climb to mediocrity, but do nothing noteworthy. By the mid-1980s, Pittsburgh had sunk to the bottom again.
Then Canada came to the rescue. Starting with Maurice Richard in the 1940s, Canada has produced an unbroken golden chain of players who are head and shoulders above all others in the NHL and the world for their generation. Each has won at least one Stanley Cup. In the mid-1980s, with Wayne Gretzky at his peak in Edmonton, fans wondered who his successor would be. In 1984 with the Penguins reaching rock bottom with the number one draft choice, Pittsburgh got him when they drafted Mario Lemieux.
The Penguins tried something unique, something unprecedented in NHL history. With the advent of Europeans in the NHL, Pittsburgh tried a combination of the top Canadian with a star European, Jaromir Jagr. That combination was enough to win Pittsburgh its first two Stanley Cups, back to back. When Pittsburgh got lucky again and was able to draft Lemieux’s successor, Sidney Crosby, they repeated the same formula when they drafted Evgeni Malkin.
Great fortune was predicted for this team. It’s taken a while, probably longer than expected, but the Crosby-Malkin duo has now passed the Lemieux-Jagr combination. It’s three Cups and still counting. With Murray in the nets giving the Penguins championship playoff goaltending, the team is finally matching the expectations that the Crosby-Malkin combination portended. Not only have the Penguins matched the best expansion team, the Oilers, they have passed the long time New York Rangers on the Stanley Cup list and look ready to match the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
In Pittsburgh, championship used to mean the Steelers. The Pirates occasionally put together a championship team in baseball. But now the late arriving Penguins are just one win behind the Steelers in championships. When you say greatest team in Pittsburgh, you have to mention them now. Not bad for a franchise that many people at the beginning of its history wondered if it would go out of business.