Penguins

Kovacevic: Remarkable, resilient Penguins complete historic back-to-back championships

Patric Hornqvist held it high. Then, he held it a little higher. Maybe no more than a millimeter, but definitely higher.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and the Stanley Cup in Nashville. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Patric Hornqvist held it high.

Then, he held it higher. Maybe no more than a millimeter, but definitely higher:

It certainly wasn’t because he was surprised, as with so many fledglings to the process, that the Stanley Cup weighs 35 pounds. He knew how heavy it was well before Phil Kessel handed it his way.

No, this extra oomph was needed because that man is raising that trophy with a broken right hand. Specifically, a finger that’s completely cracked. It’s not some vague ‘upper-body injury,’ not something that could be casually cortisoned away. It’s caused so much pain in the past month, continually dented and displaced every other game, that he’s found it excruciating to twist a door knob or turn on a water faucet.

Never mind, oh, you know, scoring the clinching goal of the Stanley Cup Final and securing forever a spot in our city’s sporting lore:

Yeah, that really happened, my friends. It did. And as one Hall of Famer within this little circle of life is fond of saying, you had to be here, on this steamy Sunday night inside Bridgestone Arena, to believe it.

Penguins 2, Predators 0.

Champions.

Again.

Second year in a row, fifth time in the franchise’s 50 years.

The first to repeat in the NHL since the 1997 Red Wings.

The third for the genuinely generational duo of the great Sidney Crosby and the great Evgeni Malkin.

And yet, it’s like never before.

“I feel it. It’s there. It’s always there,” Hornqvist would tell me a lot later, this with an almost disdainful glance down at that finger. “But it’s fine. It’s OK.”

No, it isn’t. A member of the coaching staff and another team official would divulge that Hornqvist had to tape that finger to the one next to it when playing or practicing and, because he didn’t want to lose touch on his shooting hand, he refused to use a protective splint.

That’s what it took, collectively and cohesively, for all this to take place.

And a whole lot of this, as well:

Because all the superstars, all the skill and all the speed in the world might add up to nothing more than a meek Tuukka Rask sweep without that throbbing Swede up there in the heart of it all.

Not to mention all those valves around him.

“This is special,” Hornqvist said. “It’s the greatest moment of my career. But it means so much more to me that I’m here with these teammates and sharing it with them.”

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How special?

The Penguins’ 2016-17 season, now that it’s capped with a crown, was built on a toughness, a perseverance that, even if poring through Pittsburgh’s rich championship history, probably can’t be rivaled.

That’s not to suggest they’d have slid harder into second base than Honus Wagner or mowed down 300-pound monsters like Mean Joe Greene. It’s also not to suggest others who won it all didn’t persevere. As Mario Lemieux, the other gentleman pictured below in our ultimate sporting triumvirate, would tell me on this night, “Every championship is special in its own way.”

Still, this team can singularly claim the surreal combination of having the most demanding schedule in its league’s history, one of the most difficult playoff entries in its league’s history, the playoff-long loss of its peak performer from the previous championship and an array of other injuries.

Let’s go through a fresh injury list first, beyond Hornqvist …

Justin Schultz, whose goal ignited the Game 5 romp and whose point shot led to Hornqvist’s winner on this night, had a completely broken rib that’s “no fun,” per his words. He could barely shoot, and he wasn’t all that adept at breathing, either.

Ian Cole, who blocked more shots with his bruised body than anyone in the NHL over the full season, reluctantly revealed to our site that his left hand was broken “early in the Washington series, I think.” He then needed his nearby mother, Connie Cole, to admonish him, “Tell them about the rib!” So he did, noting he had a broken rib that “wasn’t as bad as Schultzie’s.”

Nick Bonino didn’t play after a block in Game 2 broke his left tibia “the whole way through” near the top of the ankle, the worst place for a skater. Wait, check that: He did somehow finish that game, before the foot swelled to the point he couldn’t shove it back into the skate. But even after being shut down, he participated in a couple practice sessions merely to mess with Nashville’s plans. “There really wasn’t a chance,” he said.

Kris Letang, of course, was lost to neck surgery in March.

That alone should have been devastating, if not crippling. But Jim Rutherford immediately traded for veteran reinforcements in Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit, hoping at least one would contribute in the way Hainsey eventually did. At the same time, Mike Sullivan and staff decided that, rather than anoint anyone to fill Letang’s unfillable skates, they’d simply split the minutes, roll all three pairs evenly and eschew matchups.

Again, it shouldn’t have worked. There were times when it looked like it wouldn’t work. But it did.

I asked their most passionate supporter/part-time coach to explain:

Bonino was contributing much the same in his classroom setting. He didn’t miss one penalty-killing meeting right through preparations for Game 6, and he contributed what he could.

On this night, that was condensed to rooting for the four brilliant kills, including a five-on-three, that just might wind up branding this game. Matt Cullen, Carl Hagelin, Carter Rowney and Bryan Rust aligned with precision to frustrate Nashville’s usually trigger-happy point men, forcing them repeatedly to reconsider. One power play saw the Predators’ point men zip the puck back and forth to each other like a badminton match.

“Did you see that?” Hagelin would beam.

“The point men know we’re not moving because we’ve blocked shots all season,” Cullen said. “They’ll have to go through us, or it’s going to get blocked and go out of the zone. We’re fine with either one.”

It’s one thing to have that body-on-the-line attitude as some ordinary team eying a playoff berth. But it’s something entirely different to sacrifice like that as a defending champion facing voluminous other challenges.

How about fatigue?

Is it OK, too, to talk about fatigue now that it’s all finished?

“We’re tired,” Malkin said. “But tomorrow, the sun comes up and it’s a new day.”

I’ll take that as a green light.

Get this: These Penguins, with very few faces changing, just churned through a 107-game season right after a 106-game season, separated by barely a couple months. They played 49 playoff games over two years, the most ever in the NHL over such a span. They won eight series without sweeping anyone, and three went the distance, including the back-to-back Game 7s that led into this Final.

Overall, that’s 213 games in 612 days. One every 2.87 days. Including the offseason!

Remember the late Badger Bob Johnson preaching to the Penguins’ inaugural champs how “you always need to have that one short series along the way” to win the Cup?

These guys barely got a bathroom break.

“You get tired, no question,” Brian Dumoulin said. “You just have to find a way. When you think you’re out of energy, just push that much harder, you know?”

It sure didn’t help that they also had to push through a brutal playoff bracket that set up the NHL’s No. 1 and No. 4 overall teams in the first two rounds.

Remember the Capitals and Blue Jackets, anyone?

Remember Matt Calvert’s double-assault on Tom Kuhnhackl? Matt Niskanen’s cross-check to Crosby’s face? Every hack or whack from the likes of Brandon Dubinsky or Tom Wilson? And that sickening feeling that, if only the Penguins could somehow survive these series — meaning actual survival — they’d be just fine?

Well, the Penguins remember all that, plus needing Chris Kunitz’s double-overtime one-timer in Game 7 to finally shoo the Senators.

Nothing but nothing came easily.

Even here, fresh off the 6-0 laugher in Game 5, the Penguins were back to being stuck in Nashville slush, they couldn’t get the ref’s attention if they were his prom date, they had to tiptoe all through the scoreless third period for fear of a Game 7 … and naturally, the guy who’s made a career of being beaten down, the guy who can’t bleeping grip his bleeping stick … that’s the one who winds up the hero.

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These Penguins defy a whole lot of hockey logic. Proponents of the sport’s still-nascent advanced metrics have recently written and spoken of how confusing it’s become that they regularly beat opponents who’ve outshot them, that they convert on an abnormally high percentage of their own shots, and their various other very Penguins-y traits. It’s even been suggested that this might prompt the analytical community to augment some long-standing principles.

Wonderful.

In the interim, I hereby submit the following for serious intellectual consumption:

That right there, Pittsburgh, is one of your genuinely generational talents.

In anticipation of Hagelin’s empty-netter, the still-infant son of Vladimir and Natalia Malkin practically slugs Kessel in the mouth to ensure his excitement was shared, then whirls back toward the Nashville crowd to commence with, oh, 1.4 seconds of taunting, then spins back to resume brotherly violence on the bench.

When the final horn sounds, and that bench empties toward Matt Murray’s crease, one of your genuinely generational talents becomes so chaotically embedded in the pack that his nose gets gashed by … heck, even he couldn’t answer that when I asked:

Here now is the other genuinely generational talent, after being justly honored again with the Conn Smythe Trophy and after again taking the first lap with the Cup, presenting Hainsey, who ‘d never previously appeared in a playoff through 15 seasons, with the treasured second touch:

Here’s one franchise goaltender, with equal class, passing the torch and the Cup to the new franchise goaltender:

Here’s the most gifted player who ever lived, now the owner of five rings plus the one that undoubtedly still means the most:

Here’s Eddie Johnston, politely rejecting any assistance at age 80 to hoist all 35 pounds — “I’ll hold it,” he says — but still having the captain nearby to help if needed:

Here’s Dad, squirted by Kid, on what might be his farewell lap:

Here’s the conductor, always in coach mode, always crediting the players, investing his signature individual moment into shouting in their way: “Thank you, boys! You guys are the best!”

I’ll ask again: How special?

The owners …

“All the injuries, the back-to-back, everything that this team had to overcome,” Lemieux said, “I mean, anytime you can do that and win the Stanley Cup … yeah, this one’s special.”

“I’m so proud of the players,” Ron Burkle said. “That’s what stands out for me, how they stuck together, supported each other.”

The GM …

“This was the toughest one,” Rutherford said. “We had so many guys banged up. They had the will to win. They’re just gutsy, determined, talented guys. Our opponents were so tough. Columbus was physical. Of course, Washington is so good. We had to win Game 7 in Washington. Fleury won the game for us. Ottawa was a really tough opponent. Nashville has a very, very good team. My hat’s off to them.”

The coach …

“It’s hard to express in words how proud we are of this group of players,” Sullivan said. “They’re such a privilege to coach, and I mean that so sincerely. These guys are such great people, first and foremost, and they’re terrific hockey players. We really believe that we’ve got a unique chemistry within our room. We think it’s a competitive advantage for us.”

The captain …

“I’m really happy to be a part of this group, and a good chunk of the guys are returning from last year, so it’s pretty special,” he said. “You know, we set out to try to go back-to-back. We knew it was going to be difficult, but I think that’s probably where the most joy comes out of, just knowing how difficult it is now to go back-to-back and knowing we overcame all those things. It’s a pretty special group. I’ll say that.”

And the patriarch …

“What these guys did? With everything that happened and no Tanger? This is just great. Just great,” E.J. said. “And hey, I’ll tell you this right now: There’s nothing more perfect than Horny winning this game.”

Painfully perfect.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

Penguins vs. Predators, Game 6, Stanley Cup Final, Nashville, Tenn., June 11, 2017. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS