Last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched back-to-back Stanley Cups in Game 6 in Nashville. Winning a Stanley Cup is a difficult and trying pursuit that requires immeasurable amounts of injury luck, physical resilience, puck bounces, and above all else, elite play from an entire team – #1 forward to #6 defenseman – over the course of four brutal rounds of hockey. Moreover, to complete that feat in back-to-back seasons borders on impossible. It doesn’t happen often. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings who have both succeeded (1997 & 98) and failed in the attempt (2008 & 2009). Nothing is guaranteed.
In the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, the Red Wings were the established powerhouse, winners of three titles in the last ten years. The Penguins were the up-and-coming dark horse thirsty for glory. Detroit dominated Pittsburgh in all facets and clinched the series on Pittsburgh’s home ice in Game 6. The young Penguins were visibly overmatched and if not for a brilliant 2-goal performance by Sidney Crosby in Game 3 and a nail-biting win in the 3 overtime Game 5, the Pens would have been swept out of Mellon Arena and into the Monongahela River. Pittsburgh’s time would have to wait.
Fast forward one year. Once again the Red Wings and Penguins found themselves facing off in the Stanley Cup Final. The first four games were won by the home team, and Detroit obliterated the Penguins in Game 5, 5-0 to taking a commanding 3-2 series lead. In a lose-or-go-home situation in Game 6, the Penguins learned from their mistakes from the previous year and won a crucial 2-1 victory to send the series back to Joe Louis Arena for a final deciding game.
I remember Game 7 like it was yesterday – Max Talbot’s goals in the second period, Johnathan’s Ericsson’s goal late in the third period to halve the deficit, and of course Marc-Andre Fleury’s last-gasp diving save on Eric Lidstrom’s shot as time expired to give Pittsburgh their first Cup in 16 years. Just watch the highlights.
The Detroit fans sat in disbelief as the team they had so easily crushed the year previously, came into their house and stole a championship that was supposedly theirs. The Penguins had arrived.
Now almost a decade later, I am reminded a great deal of those ’08 and ’09 Red Wings because Pittsburgh, in some ways has become Detroit 2.0 – the gold standard for how to build and maintain a hockey dynasty. The Penguins, now the seasoned team, are very much Red Wings-like in their approach. Their leaders – Crosby, Malkin, and Chris Kunitz remember the 2009 victory and drew from that experience much the same way the 2008 trio of Lidstrom, Osgood, Holmstrom likely remembered the glory of winning the 1998 Cup and infused that team with a confidence that drove them to a championship.
Meanwhile, Nashville has shown signs of becoming the Penguins 2.0. They’ve quietly built a young, exciting team. And the likes of P.K. Subban, Filip Forsberg, and Roman Josi are fueled in part by their rabid catfish-lobbing fans and also just being really good at hockey. This Predators team was eager to stand eye-to-eye with their elders and betters in hopes of stealing the limelight earlier than anyone expected – establishing their own legacy in the process.
Last night, as I sat through 58 minutes and 25 seconds of scoreless hockey in Game 6, I began thinking that maybe the Predators would learn what the Penguins could not in 2008 and sneak a win to force a Game 7. They came close, but thanks to a disallowed goal in the first period and a late bad angle goal by former-Predator and walking injury report Patrik Hornqvist, the Penguins clinched history and the Predators hopes of glory were put on hold much like Crosby & Co. in ’08.
As another Cup comes to the City of Champions, I can see how those Detroit fans may have felt in 2009. The Predators have officially arrived as the face of a youth-driven, rough and tumble, American brand of hockey that will likely dominate the sport in the coming years. And while the Penguins may still have a few deep playoff runs in them, I saw this series as a sign of things to come. The sun will eventually set in Western Pennsylvania. Father time is undefeated. But another sun is about to rise in the land of Dixie, they just have to wait another year before it happens.