Penguins

Kovacevic: No team in franchise’s 50 years has shown greater grit

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Chris Kunitz is mobbed after his double-overtime goal by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

This puck, this time, wasn't going to be stopped.

It wasn't going to lounge in the blue paint for two eternal seconds before finally being swept away.

It wasn't going to ping off the crossbar, then dance a two-step across the upper netting.

And for once, it wasn't going to get swallowed up by the cross-eyed Senator adorning Craig Anderson's chest.

Nope, this one was going to find a way:

Chris Kunitz had the will. He hadn't found the back of any net anywhere since February until finishing off a two-on-one earlier in this Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. That's kind of how it goes with him. He's come up the biggest in the biggest games, from Pittsburgh to Sochi and beyond.

But his stick was raised. His confidence was back. He wanted the puck. And given the special bond that's long been in place between him and Sidney Crosby, who was whirling out of that corner, no words were needed.

"I saw Kuni's stick was up," the captain would tell me later. "He doesn't have to say anything to me in that situation."

The shot, a one-timer off the front foot, was a knuckler that would make R.A. Dickey blush. The puck flipped end over end. It went up before it came back down. It danced around the outreached right elbow of Ottawa's Jean-Gabriel Pageau, sailed over Anderson's right shoulder sight unseen, then came down to find twine.

Penguins 3, Senators 2.

Double-overtime.

Arguably the most magical moment to take place on PPG Paints Arena ice.

A second consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the first for any NHL team since their own rematch with the Red Wings in 2009.

A chance to face off with the Predators for a fifth championship, beginning Monday.

And the path of that puck ... so deliberate, so crazily detoured and almost derailed, so painful but ultimately so rewarding ... my friends, that's the story so far for these remarkably resilient defending champions.

The toughest team in franchise history.

____________________

It was 26 years ago Thursday that the Penguins "climbed to the top of that mountain," as Badger Bob Johnson would declare their first Stanley Cup triumph at the old Met Center in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. That was Mario Lemieux's first Cup. "There will never be another like it," the big guy was saying recently on an NBC documentary, and he's right.

May 25, 1991, will always have its singular place. So will that team.

So will the 1992 team that came back bigger and badder, enough to withstand Adam Graves' wicked slash that cracked Lemieux's wrist and the thuggery of Mike Keenan and the Blackhawks' in the Final.

So will the 2009 team that rebounded from being beaten by Detroit the previous spring and from being all but buried by most of those same Red Wings in the sequel, only to have Max Talbot and Marc-Andre Fleury take Game 7.

So will the 2016 team that, thanks to Mike Sullivan's dual brain and heart transplant for this group, did away with a half-decade of playoff demons by asserting itself through a spectacular blend of speed, skill, more speed and, at long last, the conviction to avoid confrontation so that they could "just play."

Four champions. Each distinct. Each unforgettable.

This team's tougher than all of them.

I'm a lifelong Pittsburgher. I saw them all. And none of them, with all the immeasurable respect that's due to all four, had to overcome this much just to make it this far. Sidney Crosby's had two concussions, he's eaten sticks and he's been beaten down to the point that the living legend Bobby Orr had to plead with Gary Bettman after the Game 6 debacle to get him some respect, as our Josh Yohe found out late Thursday night. Evgeni Malkin threw out his shoulder for weeks blocking that shot in Calgary. Kris Letang missed half the schedule, then all of the playoffs to neck surgery. In the playoffs alone, Matt Murray ripped up his groin in Game 1 warmups, Tom Kuhnhackl was subjected to an alleyway assault, Trevor Daley still can barely walk because who-knows-why, Chad Ruhwedel was concussed by a high stick and elbow from two different guys on the same sequence, Patric Hornqvist busted his hand, Justin Schultz threw out his shoulder ...

... and it was Schultz back on the ice Thursday, uncomfortably ahead of schedule, putting every ounce of torque into this go-ahead goal late in regulation:

I asked how that felt, meaning scoring a goal in such a situation.

He misunderstood and tellingly replied, "It hurt."

OK, then how did the injury feel?

"I'm not really sure. I'll know more tomorrow."

Hornqvist was never a threat to play, but he sure played one on TV. He was a full, eager participant in warmups, even snapping off a couple of authoritative wristers. Once done, he fairly bounced down the runway, high-fiving a few of the kids hanging over the railing there. It was all for show.

Try to imagine what could keep that man out of a Game 7, then try to imagine how much it hurt to go through that charade just to keep Guy Boucher's plans for line matchups even a tiny bit unsettled.

Small wonder that, as soon as Kunitz was done celebrating his goal in the Ottawa zone, he briskly skated toward the bench to embrace, one at a time, each of the injured guys in suits and ties:

[caption id="attachment_312844" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Patric Hornqvist, Chad Ruhwedel, Kris Letang congratulate Chris Kunitz. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

"It's such a great group we have," Kunitz would say. "It's an honor to be part of it."

The toughness hardly stops with persevering through pain.

How about the toughness in turning the other cheek when, to this day, the dominant hockey culture continues to romanticize the boorish behavior seen from the Blue Jackets, Capitals and the Game 6 version of the Senators?

Or the toughness in keeping complaints about officiating to a bare minimum even when they possessed the puck at a 65 percent rate and Ottawa was a plus-6 for power plays in the series?

Or the toughness in persistently pushing through the Senators' barely-a-speed-bump-but-still-annoying 1-3-1 trap?

Sullivan singled that one out for special praise.

"I'm proud of our group for the resilience they showed throughout the course of this series," he said. "I think, when our team plays a counterattack-type team, where they have numbers back all the time and they force you to have to chip pucks in and put pucks into space as opposed to carrying through the neutral zone, I think it challenges our group. It takes a certain discipline on our part to make sure that we manage the puck the right way between the blue lines. I think we did that over the last four games."

How about the toughness of the goaltender?

Murray didn't just need to be sharper than he was in Game 6. He needed to be close to perfect to match what was happening at the other end, and he needed to be that with only half a series to his name since returning from one of the ugliest injuries a goaltender can have.

"It was definitely a slow process," Murray said of the recovery. "When I got back in there, I just tried to jump in and not kind of dip your toe in the water because then you're going to get beat. I just tried to jump in and be confident and play my game."

How about the toughness of the coach, for that matter, in making what had to be the most difficult move of his brief tenure here in switching from Fleury to Murray when he and his staff genuinely felt Fleury had carried the team to that point?

Say one thing for Sullivan: He doesn't lose these games.

Say that for Murray, too.

And hey, how about the toughness needed to finally, finally beat Anderson?

I was rough on him and his chances entering this series. I was wrong. His fortitude, which he's displayed on and off ice as powerfully as anyone in hockey over the past year, moved people on both sides to praise him as never before. And rightly so.

How about the toughness of Conor Sheary?

Embarrassingly scratched after embarrassingly sinking to a career low earlier this round, he emerged for Game 7 with fresh legs, a fresh attitude and a gorgeous aerial assist on Kunitz's first goal:

Man, how about Kunitz himself?

I'm not going to use 'toughness' in the question that time because it would be redundant. He's 37, he's reinvented himself into a hybrid forward capable of contributing on a top line, grinding on a fourth and all points in between. To boot, Kunitz had to compensate for Hornqvist's loss by doing more net-front work, more power-play work, more dirty work. This series began to turn when Sullivan and Rick Tocchet hatched a plan to put Kunitz back up top with Crosby with a primary aim of plowing into Erik Karlsson at every chance. "Hit 65," they told him, "and get Sid some room."

We've all long referred to the Penguins' 'core' as Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury, and we're all far too often guilty of omitting Kunitz. That should never happen again after this night.

I've saved this for last, but for the best reason: How about that defense?

It can be cringeworthy on occasion, at least when it comes to style or smoothness. When Ron Hainsey challenges an oncoming forward one-on-one, probably half the building starts chomping into another fingernail. But where these six men converge, the stats support the outcome: The Senators, with their lives on the line, put all of four pucks on Murray in the two overtimes.

Four!

One every six minutes!

"We know who we are, and we know how we play," Ian Cole would say, prideful as ever. "I don't think they got very close to our net at all most of the night, especially in overtime."

Not at all. And it was common through all three series, though much more of late. Without Letang to anchor a half-hour a game, they roll all three pairings, something Hainsey told me was a big part of their ability to stay sharp through the overtimes. They don't match up. Jacques Martin just sends one out after the other.

I went around the room and asked these men about the bond that's been built on the blue line:

Catch Maatta's priceless grin there at the end?

He's been the best of them. I'm not sure anyone could have foreseen that even just a couple months ago.

And talk about tough, after everything that young man's endured.

"We're out to prove something on this defense," he'd tell me. "We're out to prove people wrong about the kind of group we have here. And we're not done yet."

____________________

The franchise was born in 1967, exactly a half-century ago when the NHL doubled in size from six to 12 teams. And if the Penguins prevail over the Predators, their five championships in 50 years would tie the Oilers for second-most in the post-expansion era, trailing the 10 that the Canadiens piled up mostly in the earliest years of that expansion.

Edmonton's last Cup came in 1990, Montreal's in 1993, so a convincing case could be made that the Penguins would be the definitive, if not outright dynastic, team of the past three decades.

That's special stuff.

So is having the chance to repeat in an era where the salary cap and the increasingly short summers conspired to prevent the Blackhawks, Kings and others from doing so.

All of that's tied, not coincidentally, with Lemieux. Everything changed with his arrival in 1984, and it's continued almost without interruption ever since. He's been the star, the savior, the star again and now the tone-setter from top to bottom. He and Ron Burkle made the change at GM and coach. He and Burkle stood by Crosby and Malkin in their darker times, Lemieux once telling me, "As long as you've got great players like Sid and Geno, you've always got a chance."

The focus on speed and skill, on playing the game the right way, the creative way that brings out the best from the team's best -- the antithesis to the Senators' garbage trapping -- that all starts with 66. So does the toughness, for few in hockey history endured as much to achieve as much.

And that spirit courses from the owner's box right down to ice level:

Sullivan is the breathing embodiment of all this, of course. He makes moves but doesn't waver. He adjusts schemes and personnel but doesn't alter the theme. He's the most super-serious, on-message man in any room but ... well, as he was exiting PPG Paints at around 1 a.m., he walked by me in a lower corridor, beamed like a proud papa and spoke in a soft tone, "This is fun, isn't it?"

Fun?

Yeah, Coach, it sure looks that way, now that you mention it.

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