By Steve Silverman
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It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
The Pittsburgh Penguins proved that old adage over the last four months, and they were rewarded with the Stanley Cup for their efforts.
The final piece of their puzzle came as a result of their 3-1 victory Sunday night in northern California, as the team with a slew of superstar offensive performers blanketed the San Jose Sharks with stifling defense.
Defense had never been a part of the Penguins’ game under former head coaches Dan Bylsma and Mike Johnston. But when Mike Sullivan was hired last December, he vowed to help the Pens become winners again.
Sullivan looked around his locker room and said he saw great players and that he was going to give them a game plan that would turn them into a great team.
It didn’t happen right away for the Penguins, as they languished outside the playoff structure for a while. But as December turned into January and January into February, the Penguins improved. By March, they had hit their stride and started to play dominating hockey. They won 14 of their final 16 regular-season games, and as a result Sullivan had a room filled with believers as the playoffs got underway.
Nobody benefited from the coaching change more than Sidney Crosby. In the first part of the season, there were plenty of whispers that Crosby was starting to slip from his perch as the best player in the NHL.
He was having a tough time putting the puck in the net and he didn’t appear to be a dominant player. Whatever Johnston was doing behind the bench was not working for No. 87.
Crosby scored one goal in the Penguins’ first 11 games, and had nine points through 18 games. He was simply not performing at his usual high level.
But that changed dramatically once Sullivan came on board. The new coach wanted the Penguins to use their skating speed on a nightly basis. His superstar center finished the season with 36 goals and 49 assists, and he looked like the Crosby of old as the playoffs got underway.
Sullivan knew he had to get Crosby going, but he also had to get all of the Penguins going. He got help from general manager Jim Rutherford, who brought in Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley. Both players were known for their speed and would help the Penguins improve as a team.
Hagelin had done excellent work during his run with the Rangers, and he appeared rejuvenated when the put on a Penguins sweater. Hagelin was put on a line with Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, and that unit helped Pittsburgh become the most dangerous team in the league.
Once the playoffs started, the Pens ripped through the Rangers in five games, as New York’s offense was unable to solve Pittsburgh’s suddenly stingy defense.
The Penguins faced a formidable task in the second round against the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, who had been the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Alex Ovechkin and the Caps instead went down in six games.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had the Penguins on the ropes with a 3-2 series lead, but Evgeni Malkin offered a Mark Messier-like guarantee that the Penguins would return home for a seventh game. The Penguins came through and went on to finish off the Lightning.
Pittsburgh showed off its speed and quickness throughout the Stanley Cup Final, as it was the faster team in the first five games. While San Jose managed to win two of those games, there was very little doubt that it was the inferior team.
When the Penguins lost Game 5 at home despite outshooting the Sharks 46-22, the message in the locker room was clear. All the Penguins had to do was repeat the performance and they would win the Stanley Cup. San Jose goalie Martin Jones had come up with a miracle-type performance and there would be no way he would repeat it.
That’s basically the way Game 6 played out. The Penguins got an early power-play goal to set the tone, and when Logan Couture tied the game in the second period, Crosby put his game into overdrive. He set up Kris Letang’s go-ahead goal and the Penguins never looked back.
Crosby picked up the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP, and he now has two Stanley Cups to go along with his two Olympic gold medals.
Not a bad finish for a guy who looked ordinary in the season’s first quarter and a team that was among the most disappointing during the first half of the season.
The Penguins now rule the hockey world.
Take one deep breath, folks, because it all starts again soon. The draft is just a couple of weeks away.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy