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Bryan Rust scores the first goal of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins would go on to win Game 1, 3-2, on May 30, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
“That’s the core of what the strategy was to win the Stanley Cup. Things happened that made it better. We didn’t anticipate having six players from [AHL]Wilkes-Barre/Scranton up here at one time. But the dynamic that created was: They weren’t sitting in the corner cowering as rookies. There were six of them that were with each other and had confidence playing for a coach that they had played for in the minors. They knew what the expectations were, and they played like it.”
It didn’t all happen according to plan. The trade for winger Phil Kessel, prior to the 2015-16 season, was made to acquire a goal-scoring complement to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Kessel didn’t find the scoring touch the Pens had anticipated until late in the season.
Sullivan, a former head coach of the Boston Bruins and a long-time NHL assistant coach, had been hired to coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, essentially standing in
reserve in the event a change at the NHL level would prove necessary.
“You always, as a general manager, anticipate there could be a change at some time,” Rutherford acknowledged last May.
Kris Letang battles for the puck as the Penguins take on the Sharks in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 1, 2016. The Penguins won the game, 2-1, and led the series 2-0 after Conor Sheary scored a tie-breaking goal in overtime.
By the time the Pens became convinced such a change was indeed due, they were looking like a team that wouldn’t even make the playoffs.
Trades for puck-moving defenseman Trevor Daley in December and speedy winger Carl Hagelin in January fit the profile the Penguins were trying to create — in theory. They were made, however, with some uncertainty as to how they’d pan out.
“I really hope this works out — because this was my call,” Sullivan told one staffer about the acquisition of Hagelin, a player he had coached with the New York Rangers.
And no one in the organization anticipated players such as Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Matt Murray — all arriving from the AHL at various times and seamlessly filling voids created by injury or inconsistency.
It took Pascal Dupuis being forced to retire for medical reasons to clear up salary-cap space to make trades.
It took a March injury to Malkin for the Penguins to stumble onto the combination that became the fabled “HBK Line” — Hagelin, center Nick Bonino and Kessel — the first line in franchise history to have its name chanted during playoff games.
And it took an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury for Murray to emerge as the team’s go-to goaltender, much sooner than anticipated.
“Anyone [who] tells you it’s our strategy and our strategy alone is lying,” Morehouse says. “It takes a lot of luck to win a championship.”
Perhaps the most significant challenge to becoming a championship team was cohesiveness; the need for the Penguins to function as a championship-caliber unit.
They long had been recognized for their star power, but since they last claimed the Stanley Cup in 2009, that alone hadn’t been good enough. They became something different in the past season, something more than the sum of their high-profile parts.
Once that happened, they were nearly unstoppable.
“I know there are a lot of stories that surround this group,” Sullivan observed on May 26, after a 2-1 victory in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning had delivered the Penguins into the Stanley Cup Final. “The greatest story is the group itself.
“When you’re a part of something that’s bigger than yourself, it’s a special feeling, and I know these guys have it right now.”
Perhaps that’s what truly resonated with the Penguins’ legions of devoted followers.
With the thousands upon thousands who showed up for the home games with no hope of actually attending, wearing their jerseys and lugging folding chairs just for a chance to be on the outside looking in.
With those who offered Sullivan a pat on the back at a gas station.
With sellout crowds that rocked the foundation of an arena that had previously earned an unfair reputation as a venue more stale than loud.
It’s the type of civic embrace that helps to endear players to a city just as quickly as the city attaches to them.
Consider winger Chris Kunitz’ stated appreciation of the city prior to arriving via a trade in February 2009.
“Zero,” says Kunitz, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan who played college hockey at Ferris State, in Big Rapids, Mich., and in the NHL previously with Anaheim.
That’s changed considerably.
“It would have been tough to put Pittsburgh on a map before we started living here and started to realize how almost Midwest the people are, how family-forward everyone is and how inviting they are for us, as outsiders, to come into the community,” Kunitz says. “All of our kids have been born here in Pittsburgh. We’ve met a lot of people outside of hockey. We’re fortunate to be part of such a great organization. But the community around us and the people that you meet at the hockey rinks or the dance studios, the things our kids are involved in, really make it feel like home.
Winger Phil Kessel, who joined the Penguins prior to the 2015-16 season and became part of the fan-favorite “HBK Line” with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, takes the ice in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 12, 2016 at the SAP Center in San Jose.
“When I’m on the road, we have friends that come and help out my wife and take our kids to different activities. And just being in the community and being in the neighborhood for Halloween, you realize how much fun it is to be in the Pittsburgh area.
“It seems like every holiday that passes by, we get asked to come to somebody’s house or get involved with their family for Christmas or Thanksgiving, just friends and people who have kids the same age and do the same activities in the neighborhood.”
Center Matt Cullen had played with Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, the New York Rangers, Ottawa, Minnesota and Nashville before signing with the Penguins as a free agent in August 2015.
It was only then that he was able to begin discovering Pittsburgh and its surroundings beyond the typical airport-bus-hotel-bus-rink-bus-airport exposure NHL visiting teams generally are afforded.
“You just stay Downtown,” Cullen says. “Downtown is fine, but it’s not unlike a lot of other downtowns. It’s a city. But when you get to know it, the ins and the outs, it’s pretty cool. You don’t get to fully appreciate it when you visit from another team.
“I had no idea before I got here what beautiful country it is, I love that. I love taking the kids for hikes up in the woods and going for bike rides and stuff. In that regard it reminds me of home.” Cullen was born in Virginia, Minn., and grew up in Moorhead, Minn.
“The people are nice, the pace of life is the same,” he says. “It’s not too crazy, not like big-city crazy where everything’s 100 mph.”
Captain Sidney Crosby hoists the Stanley Cup as the Penguins celebrate after defeating the Sharks in Game 6 of the Finals on June 12, 2016 at the SAP Center.
That changed temporarily on June 9, 2016 — with the Cup within reach.
Everyone associated with the Penguins, it seemed, was flabbergasted by the passion the fans brought to Game 5.
And — public safety concerns aside — it was appreciated.
Cullen characterizes Pittsburgh as “a hockey town,” and that’s a designation a hockey lifer doesn’t take for granted.
“People love hockey here,” he says. “And for us, hockey is what we do — but it’s also kind of our lives, you know? So to be in a place where it’s really valued, everything that you do, and people respect and enjoy what you do, it means a lot.”
Kunitz adds: “If any of the guys stop and talk to somebody, they usually make reference to how hard-working the guys are or how relentless, how tough. It’s not like they just want to praise all the nice scoring plays and things like that. They have a real ability to praise the guys that go out and do the tough jobs, that have that hard-working mentality every day.”
No less should be expected from the 2016 Pittsburghers of the Year.
And no less will be anticipated from them in 2017. Considerations already are being made for this year’s public gatherings, should the Penguins once again rally toward the Stanley Cup.
“We’ll do our part,” Peduto says. “The guys gotta do theirs and get back into that Final.”
Print and broadcast journalist Mike Prisuta is the host of the Steelers Radio Network pregame show and has covered sports in Pittsburgh since 1985. He writes “Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section” each week for pittsburghmagazine.com and is the sports director for WDVE-FM.