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SAN JOSE, Calif. – The odor of cheap beer and uncorked champagne barreled down the hall, stronger and stronger as the party raged. It originated inside the visitors locker room at SAP Center, an accouterment to the cheers coming from within, and followed the black rubber mat toward the door in the corner of the ice, where the Pittsburgh Penguins had entered several hours before and only recently exited as the 2016 Stanley Cup champions. “Smells like victory,” came one voice. After a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks, no other explanation was necessary.
But where to begin with these Penguins? The head coach who assumed control on Dec. 12, summoned from the minors to rescue a team facing its nadir, now toppling the franchise with which his NHL career started? The captain who added the Conn Smythe trophy to his overflowing arsenal, seven years to the day after leading Pittsburgh to the title at age 21? The first teammate who took the grail from him, the one with the broken ankle and ailing mother, or the second, the one whose career ended due to blood clots? The rookie goaltender? The redeemed sniper? The general manager who took so much heat last season, now remembering how he wound up here?
“For a couple weeks I was thinking I was just going to take it easy and play a lot of golf, until I got a phone call from Pittsburgh,” said Jim Rutherford, whose unemployment after leaving the Carolina Hurricanes in 2014 didn’t last long. “I wouldn’t have gone many places. I just felt that with the core players in Pittsburgh, this was a chance to win another Cup, and as it turned out I was right.”
Pick any of them. They were all rendered breathless, limited to words like “special,” “unbelievable” and “my god.” Even in the early moments of the celebration, as family members filed onto the ice and Penguins faithful banged on the glass, the actual events of Game 6 were fading from memory. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s first-period goal fired from near the blue line, the fifth time in the series that Pittsburgh struck first. Partner Kris Letang’s rampaging shift midway through the second frame, ending with Sidney Crosby’s nifty wraparound pass that hit Letang for the eventual game-winner. The 18 saves made by rookie netminder Matt Murray. The two penalties easily snuffed against San Jose’s mighty power play. The empty-netter potted by Patric Hornqvist with 62 seconds left, turning the visiting bench into a human fireworks display.
“I think I jumped so high I almost went over the boards there by accident,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “You’re trying to stay concentrated, dialed in as best you can, but you can taste it.”
As the final seconds ticked away and the Penguins dog-piled onto Murray, San Jose watched with misty eyes and somber stares. It was the franchise’s first Cup Final in 25 years of existence, and even as Pittsburgh’s gloves and sticks flew into the air, the sellout crowd was still chanting in approval of the effort. “Let’s go Sharks! Let’s go Sharks! Let’s go Sharks!”
“On our end, I’m very proud of our group,” coach Pete DeBoer said later. “I thought our guys emptied the tank, gave us everything they possibly could. We weren’t as good as them during this two-week period.”
This part is inarguable. With both sides missing key pieces—first-pair defenseman Trevor Daley for Pittsburgh and top-line winger Tomas Hertl for San Jose—the Penguins controlled the series. They out-shot San Jose by 67 total and 11.2 per game, the biggest margin since they beat Detroit in 2009. They came within a brick-wall effort from Martin Jones of closing out in Game 5, which would’ve brought the first home-soil title to Pittsburgh since 1960. They blocked shots until they were beyond bruised. And their unheralded defense limited the Sharks’ Joes (Thornton and Pavelski) to four combined points, themselves contributing points on 12 of Pittsburgh’s 15 goals.
“Pretty much everyone said since the beginning of the year, ‘Oh wow they got Phil Kessel, their forwards are great, but man their defense is a huge question mark,’” Cole said. “‘Their defense will be their downfall. Their defense is terrible.’ I think you saw this series, especially this series but obviously the whole entirety of the playoffs, going through teams like Washington and Tampa Bay and a team out here that had the most goals per game, the most shots per game, was unstoppable. I think we did a fantastic job shutting them down.”
And so as midnight passed on the East Coast, Sunday night in San Jose delivered moments like Crosby handing the Cup first to Daley, who even with a broken ankle still slipped into skates and glided around like everyone else. “He had been through some different playoffs, but getting hurt at the time he did, knowing how important it was, he had told me that he went and seen his mom in between series and stuff, she wasn't doing well, she wanted to see him with the Cup,” Crosby said.
And then Daley handing it to Pascal Dupuis, who thought he was going to cry but held back. "This is as good as we could have done without him playing," Crosby said. "That was special." And then goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury getting his smooch, after a concussion allowed Murray to swipe the spotlight and his job. And Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh’s leading postseason scorer with 22 points, laughing while fans pounded on the glass, losing his train of thought as they chanted his name. “It’s unbelievable,” Kessel said. “It’s so special. I’m proud of every guy here. We worked for each other, played for each other, and we ended up getting it done.”
Indeed, from Kessel’s long road from leaving Toronto and on down the line, the stories that tailed Pittsburgh’s run seem endless. The Penguins stormed into the playoffs as the NHL’s hottest team down the stretch, foremost riding Crosby’s dominance and their HBK line, only a few months after calls for Rutherford’s job and screeds about their captain’s fading talents littered the landscape. So let’s give the last word to Crosby, who started Game 6 trading cross-checks and slashes with Thornton, and then ended it leading a parade of teammates with the Cup hoisted high over his head. “You need to have some luck along the way,” Crosby said later. “I think you just appreciate it, you appreciate how hard it is to win it. Just kind of enjoy the feeling when you do.”