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10 Years of Pens Playoffs: Champions again in ‘16

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A series reflecting back on the past ten years of the Penguins postseason run, one year at a time

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When Jim Rutherford was tasked with rebuilding the Penguins, it took some time. It took some wheeling and dealing. Acquiring pieces of the Penguins core of the future would come little by little. Patric Hornqvist was an integral piece. But on July 1st, 2016, Rutherford made his move.

Phil Kessel was a Pittsburgh Penguin. This wouldn’t be Rutherford’s last move of the summer, either. Later on, he would deal Brandon Sutter to the Canucks in exchange for Nick Bonino. GMJR has his B and his K, little did we know he was just looking for that H.

The H, however, definitely didn’t stand for Honeymoon. The Penguins were dreadful to start the season. They were middling and they were boring. Mike Johnston had them playing a style trying to cover up their weaknesses on defense, and in the process was neutering the teams’ offensive ability and everything that made them great. Johnston’s second season with the Penguins would not last long, as he was removed from his position in mid-December, to be replaced by Mike Sullivan.

Several days after firing Johnston and promoting Sullivan, Rutherford made what may be his best, but not his biggest move. A little bit of cap wizardly and salary retention needed to be involved to make it happen, but on a night when the Penguins were getting pushed around by the Capitals, Rutherford did it — he traded Rob Scuderi to the Blackhawks for Trevor Daley.

Daley would go on to become another of the Penguins Island of Misfit Toys, improperly utilized and under appreciated in their former home, to come to Pittsburgh and thrive.

In January, well after his bedtime, Rutherford struck again. Pending unrestricted free agent David Perron, along with Adam Clendening, were traded to the Anaheim Ducks for former Penguins-killer Carl Hagelin. We had no idea at the time, but within a six-month period, Rutherford had traded for 3 players who would become the three pieces of a line that will be remembered forever in Penguins history.

Down the stretch, the Penguins would start playing with speed, with finesse, and under Sullivan’s mantra of “Just Play,” they would be unleashed to win with what made them great, instead of trying to cover up what made them average.

We had zero clue at the time, but Justin Schultz would become that defenseman. Traded to the Penguins from Edmonton for a 3rd-round draft pick, the previously highly-touted defenseman much in need of a change of scenery would find his new home quite the place to rejuvenate his game.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Penguins would finish down the stretch playing sound hockey and just sticking to what worked for them. The Penguins added some youth reinforcements from Wilkes-Barre in the form of Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl.

The acquisitions Rutherford had made all appeared to be thriving in their new home under Sullivan. Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, and Nick Bonino were playing well.

The veteran presences on the team, such as Matt Cullen, Ian Cole, and Ben Lovejoy were quietly just doing their jobs.

The healthy core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury looked poised for another run at a Cup....and then we thought it might all be going wrong. Evgeni Malkin, in a March game against the Blue Jackets, took an awkward hit from Dalton Prout.

The next day, it would be announced that Malkin was going to miss 6 to 8 weeks. Vomit. The solace from this injury period was the forming of a new line for the Penguins. Hagelin and Kessel would stay on the wings, and Nick Bonino would up to center them. HBK.

A few weeks before the playoffs were set to start, after taking a shot from James Neal off of his mask, Marc-Andre Fleury had a concussion. We knew Jeff Zatkoff wasn't the answer for a long run. It was young Matt Murray’s time. Luckily for the Penguins, he stepped in and showed off the same skills and play that he did while he was in the AHL.

And then the worst case scenario happened. In a meaningless game against the Flyers at the end of the season, Murray was bumped by Brayden Schenn.

He would leave the game and we would find out that he too had a concussion now. Oh no. What now?

Mr. Game One

It’s Game 1 of the playoffs and Jeff Zatkoff is starting. Tristan Jarry, who had not (and has still not) taken part in an NHL game yet was the backup. We had a potential moment of chaos on our hands if things didn’t go well for Zatkoff and the Penguins. Luckily, Zatkoff played his ass off, might have even played the game of his life.

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game One Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Rangers even the series

The Pens were flat for Game 2. Phil Kessel logged a couple goals, but we had a 1-1 series on our hands, headed to New York for a pivotal Game 3.

Old Ass Matt Cullen

A tied game in the third period in a tied series. It’s not dramatic to suggest that the next goal had the potential to shift the series one way or another — and Matt Cullen had a moment.

Matt Murray made his playoff debut in this Game 3, getting his first win, and the Penguins made it easy on him, holding the Rangers to only 17 shots.

Getting to Lundqvist

In the two previous playoff matchups against the Rangers, the common theme was simple — the Pens weren’t able to get to or rattle Henrik Lundqvist. This time was different.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Chasing Lundqvist from the net in Game 4 after giving up 4 goals on 18 shots was a fun sight to see.

Finishing Them Off

Past Penguins teams feel like they would have gone into a game like this in this series and stay off the gas pedal, perhaps leaving a little crack for the Rangers to expose and get back into this series. Not this time, kids. Not this time. New York took an early lead in the game, and after the first period, it was tied at 2-2.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

During the first intermission, the Penguins must have decided they didn't want to fool around anymore.

Four goals in the second period to make the score 6-2. Lundqvist back to the bench. Rangers go home.

It felt like redemption, or perhaps just exorcising some demons after having been eliminated by the Rangers for the past two seasons. This series was never that close, and the Penguins style just gave the Rangers so many fits. The next series looming ahead would be one of epic proportions.

A series for the ages

As soon as we knew it was going to be the Penguins and the Capitals in the second round, it was on. The league, its fans, and all of us had been waiting for this matchup again. The series in the second round in 2009 was remarkable, and this 2016 version was expected to live up to its billing. And boy, did it ever.

You had a Penguins team who figured itself out at the right time, and a Capitals team who played at a torrid pace all season, easily winning the President’s Trophy. In the first round, the Flyers gave them some fits but they moved on, winning the series in six games.

I don’t think anyone expected this series to lack the offensive firepower and skill needed to make it an epic one. On the Penguins side -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, Matt Murray. For the Capitals — Alex Ovechkin, Niclas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Braden Holtby.

Sometimes the game of hockey can be kind of fucked up and the games and series’ that are supposed to be remarkable or exciting just end up not being that great. This, however was not one of those instances.

The Parallax View

Early on in the series, it was clear it was gonna be intense with lots of swings. Game 1 would start with a trading of goals. After three periods, we were sitting with a 3-3 tie, and it went to OT. Noted Trump supporter T.J. Oshie finished off the game with a hat-trick goal to give the Caps a 1-0 series lead.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, it was the Penguins 8th-straight playoff overtime loss. Just exhausting. We knew the Penguins couldn’t afford to spot the Caps a 2-0 series lead, so Game 2 in Washington was so important.

Evening the Series

The Pens would come away with a win to split the series, but not without damages. Olli Maatta would get wrecked by Brooks Orpik.

Kris Letang found himself suspended for a game after trying to kill Marcus Johansson.

You could feel the series starting to ramp up even more. The Pens would hang on for dear life in Game 3 to take a series lead at home, setting up for a pivotal Game 4.

A 2-2 tied game heading into third period was insanely tight. No goals in the third period and we go to OT yet again. Eight OT losses in a row. Surely it’s gonna be 9, right? PATRIC HORNQVIST IS TIRED OF YOUR BULLSHIT AND TURNING THIS CAR AROUND.

What a moment. The Pens mentally needed to break that OT streak. Felt like the weight of the world off of their shoulders with that win, putting the Caps against the ropes.

The Capitals weren’t dead yet

We head back to Washington for Game 5, and the Capitals upped their game when they needed to. Ovechkin came alive.

The Penguins really shot the puck over the glass three times in a row. Really. Yes, Really.

Game 6. Back in Pittsburgh. You lose this one and you go back to D.C. for a Game 7. No one wants that.

Kessel opens the scoring and makes it 1-0. Brooks Orpik destroys Patric Hornqvist’s face and while on the 5-on-3 power play, Kessel scores again. Hagelin scores. It’s 3-0.

Late in the 2nd, T.J. Oshie gets the Caps on the board and we just wish we had been able to make it to the 3rd before the Caps scored. Almost midway through the 3rd, and Justin Williams makes it a 1-goal game. Take a deep breath. Get ready to experience something so bananas that I can’t even believe I’m about to type it again.

Chris Kunitz puts a puck over the glass. The Penguins go onto the penalty kill. The unthinkable happens. Nick Bonino puts a puck over the glass as well. You’ve got to kill a 5-on-3 now. Then the even more unthinkable happened. Ian Cole puts a puck over the glass. Three times in a row, three pucks over the god damn glass for three god damn penalties.

It’s still unbelievable. The Pens ran out of luck and the Caps finally leveled the score at 3-3 on a John Carlson goal. We’re going to overtime again. Braden Holtby was playing out his mind. The HBK line is buzzing, and just like that, it’s over.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What a damn game. What a damn series. It was everything we hoped and expected it would be.

And with that, the Penguins are headed back to the Eastern Conference Final for their 4th visit in 10 seasons. Their opponent: The Tampa Bay Lightning — and a much different Tampa team than we had seen five years earlier in 2011.

Eastern Conference Final

This Tampa Bay team, man. They really put the Penguins back on their heels, in a way he hadn’t seen anyone be able to do. Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman. They are built well and they can score on you from all across their lineup. The series started with Steven Stamkos on the shelf from an injury, and we weren’t sure if and when we would see him.

Tampa Bay jumped out to an early series lead with a win in Game 1 at Consol, where the Penguins looked a little punched in the face. They didn't seem to know how to handle Tampa Bay’s stretch pass, specifically those from Victor Hedman. The guy is a monster and can make stretch passes from far red line to far red line in his sleep, it seems. Losing Game 1 at home stung, but the Pens would get a chance to even up the series before hitting the road. Ben Bishop would leave the game with an injury and the next Penguins catalyst would step in -- Andrei Vasilevskiy. What a performance this kid put up through the series.

Game 2 was kinda bizarre. Four goals scored in the first period between both teams to have things knotted at 2-2, and then no more goals for two periods. It’s overtime again, and you know all the stats that come up. Sidney Crosby has never scored a playoff overtime goal.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Two Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

NOT SO FAST, JACK. Tied series. Phew.

The Pens would head to Tampa and come back with a split. A 4-2 win in Game 3, despite Vasilevskiy making FOURTY FOUR SAVES to take a series lead.

Game 4 was a tire fire. Tampa Bay rushed out to a 4-0 lead, Matt Murray was yanked from the net, the Pens almost rallied back, but all for not -- a 4-3 loss. Again, an even series.

Following Murray’s lackluster Game 4, Mike Sullivan gave the net to Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5. I didn’t agree with the decision at the time. I still don’t. But that said, I understand why he did. At this point, the series is 2-2. Fleury has been sitting on the bench as the backup for several games. If you lose the series without giving him a look, the optics of it aren’t great from a decision making standpoint. Fleury was Fleury, neither great nor poor, just average. The game went to OT and the puck went in off of Tyler Johnson’s butt and now the Pens are on the ropes. Cool story.

What was gonna happen in net for Game 6? Fleury gets another chance? Back to Murray? Shit, at this point, going back to Zatkoff wouldn’t have surprised me. Sullivan made the right choice, giving Matt Murray his net back.

Game 6 produced another defining moment for Sidney Crosby. Literally pushing defenders out of his way en route to the goal.

Game 7. At home. Sum of all fears. All we can think about is 2014, 2011, 2010, and 1996. It felt like nothing could go right in this game. Until Bryan Rust woke up Pittsburgh.

Pick your corner, kid. Keep that puck. What a moment. Still gives me chills. Jonathan Drouin being the gigantic pain in the ass that he is, would level the score for the Bolts. However, Bryan Rust wouldn’t be done for the night, giving the Pens a 2-0 lead as well. My god. What a game. Tampa Bay would be held to 17 shots, while the Pens put 39 shots on the opposing net. They easily could’ve been held out of this game and missed out on the Stanley Cup Final if not for a little poke from Rust.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Seven Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Penguins did not touch the trophy in 2008 and lost. They touched it in 2009 and won. Did anyone doubt that Mr. Superstitious himself would touch it for this go-round? Of course he did.

Hats off to the Tampa Bay Lightning though, for real. What an opponent. Jon Cooper sucks, but what an opponent.

Back to the Final

After 7 years and what felt like an eternity to us spoiled folks, the Penguins were back in the Stanley Cup Final. And just like it was against the Caps and the Lightning, mainstream media types were picking against the Penguins. It was Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s time — well, until it wasn't.

Bonino, Bonino, Bonino, Bonino

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. This was real. When the Penguins made it to the Final in both 2008 and 2009, I was dying to go to a game and I never made it to one. As the result of the funniest and best bet I ever made in my life, I made it to Game 1.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Talk about a buzz in the air — and the most excruciating sporting event I’ve ever attended. A quick 2-0 Pens lead with goals from the kids — Rust and Sheary. Second period, Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl, and the Sharks battle back and we go into the final frame tied. We’re fit for OT, except I’m physically not. At this point, I'm literally chewing on my free rally towel that was handed out. And then, in an instant, all of the emotions one can experience.

Joy, relief, exhilaration. The arena was so loud it made my head hurt. I think I started crying, no lie. The Pens would have to kill off a San Jose power-play to end the game and hold on for the win. My god. Talk about as close to a religious experience as you can get for a sporting event.

Sidney Crosby is a Cheater

Game 2. Another nail biter. A 1-1 tie going into OT, because our hearts aren’t conditioned enough at this point. The Penguins run a set play off of the face-off.

Little Conor Sheary does it again. And then...Logan Couture couldn’t help himself. What a fool. Lol.

Sharks Stay Alive

The Penguins would head to San Jose for Game 3, looking to take a hold of the series and be one game closer to glory. The Pens took a lead to the third period and were looking to close it out, but Joel Ward tied things up on the power-play.

Joonas Donskoi won it OT for the Sharks and there was life in San Jose.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Back to Business

Game 4, still in San Jose, the Sharks are looking to tie the series up at 2 games a piece and settle in for a long haul. The Penguins had other ideas and were all business. Ian Cole and Evgeni Malkin set the table for the Pens and Eric Fehr put the icing on the cake late.

A chance to win it at home -- that wasn't

The dream scenario was right in front of our eyes. Winning the Cup at home in front of the fans. Something the Penguins had never done. There were tens of thousands of people outside waiting to erupt into chaos with a victory. It wasn't meant to be. The Sharks would storm out to a 2-0 lead, but the Penguins would quickly erase it. Melker Karlsson would give the Sharks a lead and they would hang on and keep the series alive for another game.

The perfect game to finish a perfect season

The Penguins were a win away from greatness. They were the better team all series long. They just needed to win one and be back in glory. They needed to play a perfect game — and they did.

Brian Dumoulin gave the Pens an early lead with the man-advantage.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We’re into the second period and Logan Couture ties the game. Oh no. We’re not fit for a Game 7 in the Final. Luckily for the Penguins and us both, neither was Kris Letang. He went beast mode.

All they had to do was hold on their lead and they're champions. The worst fear is that a team is gonna turtle with a lead trying to defend it. It never works. The Penguins had other ideas. Heading into the third period, the Sharks needed two goals to force a Game 7. The Penguins only allowed them two shots the rest of the way. It was the perfect third period to end a perfect season. Patric Hornqvist iced the game and the Cup with an empty-net goal.

The Penguins were Stanley Cup Champions again.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What a series. The Sharks put up a hell of a fight and in retrospect, the Pens weren't too far from being Martin Jones-ed out of winning a Cup. What a player.

What a Final. Winning this Cup meant so much on so many levels. From guys like Pascal Dupuis, forced into retirement because of his health, to Trevor Daley, whose mother was ill, waiting to see him lift the Cup, it was a special team. Phil Kessel, blamed for the shitshow in Toronto, comes to Pittsburgh and becomes a hero. A second Stanley Cup to cement the legacies of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. From the minute they won their first Cup in 2009, it felt like they should have had more than one. All the years of failure and analyzing what went wrong, none of it mattered anymore. They were Champions again. Their legacies, if they never win again, are complete, in my opinion.

What a team.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After taking the time to revisit the Penguins being humbled by the Senators, coming up just short from glory, winning a Cup early in the plan, failing to defend as Champions, running out of steam with a team that was missing its stars, pure embarrassment, getting shut out and swept, blowing a 3-1 lead, starting a rebuild, and finding glory again, we’ve gone through 10 years together. A decade of emotions all across the spectrum — joy winning, sadness losing, anger and frustration when we knew they could be better. Fans of some teams would be happy to make the playoffs, or win a playoff game. Winning a series might mean the world to them. We've been very spoiled, very lucky, and very blessed as hockey fans. Things have turned to complete shit at times during this run, but at the end of the day, we should be thankful for having these memories. We're holding the current longest postseason streak of 11 straight appearances as the Detroit Red Wings have missed out on the playoffs. A time is gonna come when we don’t have this kind of annual success, and my prediction right now is that during those times, people will wish they had appreciated this past decade more. That day will come soon enough. For now, let’s enjoy the current moment.

Let’s go Pens.