SAN JOSE – When Mike Johnston was fired and Mike Sullivan was named Pittsburgh Penguins head coach on Dec. 12, the team sat in ninth place and didn’t even look like a playoff team.
Exactly seven months later, the Penguins carried the Stanley Cup around SAP Center as NHL champions.
“We had the coaching change, and the frustration, and to think we would be holding the Cup is something that a lot of people would have said, ‘You guys are crazy,’” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “But I think everyone in the (dressing) room knew we had a team.”
The Penguins used goals by Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, plus an empty-netter by Patric Hornqvist, to down the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to complete one of the more impressive in-season transformations in NHL history.
This is the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup. The Penguins had previously won in 1991, 1992 and 2009. The connecting person of all four championships is Mario Lemieux, who was a Penguins player for the first two titles and owner for the last two.
“This means a lot to the city and the franchise," said Lemieux. "We are going to have a little party tonight."
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby didn’t have a goal in the Stanley Cup Final, but he posted 19 points in the playoffs and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
“The two years I’ve been here he has become a complete player, all zones and he gets his points,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said.
Adding a second Stanley Cup championship and a Smythe Trophy merely enhances a Crosby resume that also includes two Olympic gold medals and a World Championship. Crosby has now won all of the NHL's major awards.
After winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, the Penguins couldn’t maintain the consistency necessary for multiple titles. Rutherford was brought in two summers ago and has changed about 70% of the roster.
“One of the things that we like about (Rutherford) is that he just did what we needed him to do,” Penguins President David Morehouse said. “He didn’t talk about rebuilding. He just reloaded.”
In addition to changing coaches mid-season, Rutherford traded for Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin and Justin Schultz during the season. He also promoted younger players, such as Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary.
Last summer, he traded for Phil Kessel, who ended up being the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs.
One of the first teammates to call Kessel after the trade was Crosby.
“He said they were excited have me,” Kessel recalled. "He said, `We’re going to try and win a Cup.’ And we got it done.’’
Rutherford’s game plan was to make the Penguins faster and grittier in the postseason and he accomplished both of his objectives.
"Their speed, the pressure they put on with their speed – it’s not just their speed. They have good sticks, too,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds.“
Every opponent had difficulty dealing with Pittsburgh’s speed. While the emphasis is on how fast the Penguins are offensively, it is Pittsburgh’s quickness on the forecheck and backcheck that causes the most trouble for opponents.
The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning both said they had no time to make plays with the Penguins always bearing down on them.
The Sharks, a quality offensive team, couldn’t generate more than 26 shots in any of the six games during the Stanley Cup Final. They only managed 19 shots in Game 6.
The Stanley Cup Final looked close, with all of the games decided in the third period or overtime. But the Penguins were the stronger team throughout the series. They scored first in five of the six games, and the Sharks managed to take a regulation lead only once.
“They played their game for much longer stretches than we were able to,” DeBoer said. “They dictated play. They started quicker than us. That’s the reason they’re holding the Cup.”
In Game 6, the Sharks tied the game 1-1 at 6:27 of the second period, but the Penguins regained the lead 1:19 later when Letang fired a shot that hit goalie Martin Jones’ blocker, and squeezed under his arm for a goal.
The Penguins were challenging to play against, which has not been the case in recent years.
“Jim Rutherford brought the right kind of people here to get us this championship,” Morehouse said. “When you look it, he did an extraordinary job.”