photo:twitter.com
photo:twitter.com

In December they were in 10th place, and if the season ended they would’ve missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Then they switched coaches by relieving Mike Johnston of his duties and turned to team AHL Affiliate HC Mike Sullivan as their new man. Then they made the playoffs. G Marc-Andre Fluery got injured, Mike Zackoff filled in at goal, then he got hurt. Enter 22-year old rookie Matt Murray….and they win the Stanley Cup.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup Champions.

Pittsburgh beat the Western Conference Champions San Jose Sharks in game 6 win their first Stanley Cup since 2009 and the 4th overall in their history. And they won it the same way they did the other 3: On the road. Fans were hoping that they would’ve clinched it Thursday night in Pittsburgh, but the Sharks who were on the brink of elimination, had other plans as they stunned the Penguins 4-2. But the Penguins traveled to San Jose to resume plans in Game 6 and they got it done.

Captain Sidney Crosby was named the Conn Smyth Winner, the award given to the postseason Most Valuable Player. He didn’t have a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals, but his play was valuable in the playoffs. He was an unlikely winner just as the Penguins were an unlikely team to win it all.

But they got it done.

”I was just thinking about how hard it was to get to this point, just trying to enjoy every second of it,” Crosby said. ”It’s not easy to get here. Having won seven years ago at a young age, you probably take it for granted a little bit. You don’t think you do at the time, but it’s not easy to get to this point.”

The Penguins still trail the Pittsburgh Steelers (6 Championships) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (5 Championships) but with them winning their 4th, they’re gaining on both and are the most recent team to win a title.

Here’s a recap of Game 6:

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.

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 an entire 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,” said Owner Lemieux, who won back-to-back titles and Conn Smythe trophies as a player for Pittsburgh. ”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.

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.

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.

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.

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’ net minder.

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.

In Major League Baseball: Speaking of the Pirates, 2 months after dominating the St. Louis Cardinals to open the MLB season, the fell hard to the Cardinals in a 3-game sweep that concluded with an 8-3 loss to the Redbirds on Sunday.

Mike Leake pitched seven effective innings, Matt Holliday homered and the Cardinals cruised to an 8-3 victory Sunday. Randal Grichuk also homered for surging St. Louis, which has won five consecutive games and swept a series at PNC Park for the first time since August 2009. Holliday and Yadier Molina each had three hits.

Molina and Holliday have combined for 310 career hits against Pittsburgh. Leake won seven straight decisions versus the Pirates before losing his previous outing against them in April. St. Louis entered the weekend having lost 22 of its past 31 in Pittsburgh, but won a series at PNC Park for the first time since 2012.

Leake (5-4) won for the fifth time in six decisions, limiting the Pirates to two earned runs and six singles with no walks and six strikeouts. He also went 2 for 3 at the plate and scored during the Cardinals’ three-run third.

The slumping Pirates have lost a season-worst five straight and fell a season-high 12 games behind the first-place Cubs in the NL Central. The second-place Cardinals remained nine games back.

St. Louis scored four times in the sixth, capped by Grichuk’s solo homer to left field that ended the evening for Pirates starter Jonathon Niese. Grichuk snapped out of a 2-for-24 slump with the home run, his eighth.

Niese (6-3) lost for the first time since May 9. He was charged with season highs for runs (eight) and hits (11).

The left-hander had gone 3-1 with a 1.74 ERA over his past five starts and tossed seven scoreless innings in his previous outing. David Freese and Starling Marte each had two hits and an RBI for the Pirates. Holliday’s two-out solo homer in the first inning was his 11th of the season and second in two games.

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatoday.com

Follow him @urbanmediaRay on twitter

 

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