(Note: A version of this story ran last year prior to the playoffs. It has been updated for 2018.)
Sounds simple, right?
Win 16 games and you earn the right to lift the Stanley Cup.
We all know, nothing about those 16 wins is easy. The past two seasons we have all experienced first hand just how difficult those 16 wins are. You live and die on every shot knowing that at any moment it can all come crashing down around you.
Over the past two years we have watched the Penguins go through all the highs and lows of winning a championship. Each year came with its own set of challenges, but at the end, the Penguins were the last ones left standing.
The road to the Cup is a long journey littered with obstacles every step of the way. Whether those obstacles are losing beginning the playoffs knowing your most important defenseman will not pay a second, your starting goalie goes down moments before you begin to defend your title, losing your captain and best player in the world against your biggest rival, going to double overtime in a Game 7, or facing a frenzied crowd with immortality on the line, the obstacles will always be there but the end result will always be worth it.
A true champion must overcome anything placed in their path if they wish to reach the mountaintop.
Winning the Stanley Cup is like writing book and the those 16 wins are the chapters, each telling their own story about the journey it took to get there.
Coming off the Stanley Cup run in 2016, last year felt like the Penguins were playing with house money. You win the Cup again and you do something no other team has done this millenium, or you lose and you can chalk it up tired legs and bruised bodies.
Even with the house money sitting in your wallet, every step the Penguins took to get closer to another Stanley Cup the more real everything felt. Every win gave you more confidence that they could in fact do the unthinkable.
Without Kris Letang the rest of the blue line stepped up when called upon. Marc-Andre Fleury knew his days in Pittsburgh were numbered and stepped in to deliver one final moment for the franchise. Sidney Crosby went down but everyone else stepped up. For every shot the Penguins took they responded with two of their own. These are the moments we will tell our children and grandchildren about.
The story goes something like this...
- Pens are dealt a blow moments before their title defense begins. Matt Murray goes down but in steps Marc-Andre Fleury. Flower’s final ride begins with a win.
- Captain Sidney Crosby makes his presence known with three points to push the Penguins to a 2-0 series lead heading to Columbus.
- Columbus is desperate for a victory and comes out red hot. The Penguins fight back and young Jake Guentzel caps off a hat trick with an overtime winner.
- Back home after failing to sweep, the Pens smell blood early and slam the door shut on the Blue Jackets. A familiar foe awaits in Round 2.
- Our old friends from Washington are hungry for redemption. Nick Bonino provides them with more nightmares and an early series lead for the Penguins.
- Winning one in Washington was big, but winning two put the Capitals against the wall. Pens boat race Washington out of their own building with second period onslaught.
- Crosby is sidelined with a concussion, giving the Caps a chance to even up the series. That’s fine, we still have Evgeni Malkin. He sets up Justin Schultz who hammers home the game winner.
- Back in Washington for a Game 7 and the Caps have all the momentum. Bryan Rust steals the “Mr. Game 7” baton from Justin Williams and Fleury robs Alex Ovechkin. History repeats itself for a ninth time.
- Same story as 2016, Pens need a win to avoid losing both at home. Phil Kessel gets frustrated but continues fighting and finally breaks through Senators trap.
- An ugly loss in Game 3 pushed Mike Sullivan into a goalie change. Murray takes over for Fleury. Move pays of as Pens hang on to knot the series heading home.
- Pens score early and often against Craig Anderson and lead 4-0 after one period. When the final horn sounds they have seven on the board and need one win to return to the Final.
- Another Game 7 but this time on home ice. Pens lead twice but Senators answer right back. One overtime period isn’t enough to decide a winner. Crosby sets one up for Chris Kunitz and you know the rest. Back to the Final.
- Pens jump out to an early lead but the upstart Preds fight back. No shots on goal for over 30 minutes but Jake Guentzel gets one and makes it count. Three wins glory.
- Predators score first but Pens get it back. Three goals in less than four minutes of the third period propels Pens to 2-0 series lead heading South. Two wins left.
- Returning home after a rough pair in Nashville is just what the doctor ordered. Pekka Rinne continues his Pittsburgh nightmare as the Pens put six past him. Murray responds with a shutout at the other end. One. More. Win.
- The Pens have never won a Cup on home ice and the trend continues. Teams play scoreless hockey until Patric Hornqvist bounces one in off Rinne. Hagelin seals it with an empty netter and Murray posts another zero on the scoreboard. Back-to-back complete. Champs, again.
Another incredible run by the Penguins to do what many thought was impossible.
These moments will not last forever so never take them for granted.
Now, let’s do it again.
All we can hope for is another story like that one. Another 16 chapters that tell the story of a group of men who persevered through thick and thin to bring another title to the city where it is beloved above almost anything else.
Since the beginning of the 2015-2016 season, the Penguins have played 295 games of hockey. Far and away the most in the NHL but that’s what happens when you win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Of those 295 games, 177 of them have resulted in wins for the Penguins, the most important being the 32 that came between April and June
This season didn’t start the way many had hoped and for a while there was panic that the Pens may do the unthinkable and miss the playoffs. When you play as many games as the Pens have in this time span sometimes it’s hard to get going right off the bat. Eventually the team woke up and reminded everyone that they are still in fact the two time defending Stanley Cup champions.
If another team wants what the Penguins have, then they’re going to have beat them themselves or hope someone else does it for them. Until proven otherwise, the champs are the champs and the Cup belongs to Pittsburgh. Give us your best shot.
Every game the team wins from here on in will be more difficult than any of the 47 they won in the regular season and each victory will be harder than the one before it. That’s how it supposed to be. That’s what makes the Stanley Cup so special. You play 82 games to get a shot, then you have to navigate a two month gauntlet to reach the real prize.
That gauntlet begins tonight.
16 teams will start, only one will remain standing when the dust settles in June.
There is no shortage of great storylines spread throughout the league as the playoffs begin. One of the best resides right here in Pittsburgh as the Pens look to become the first three-peat champions since the New York Islanders in 1982. It’s something you shouldn’t be able to do in a salary cap league but I can guarantee you the Pens will leave it all on the ice when it matters the most.
The target on their back has grown and now is bigger than ever.
Every one wants what they have.
It won’t be easy.
It’s not supposed to be.
You play for this moment.
Enjoy this ride, regardless of how long it lasts. These are moments you will remember for a lifetime.
A great man once said, “It’s a great day for hockey.”
See you on the other side.
Let’s go Pens.