PITTSBURGH, Pa. — It was a series that began with fond reminiscences of a classic playoff series seven years ago and ended up being a rollicking testament to an entirely different cast of heroes for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Heck, a vastly different Pittsburgh Penguins team.
But somehow it was fitting, then, that the Penguins would vanquish the Washington Capitals as they did seven years ago, with captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining for just one goal in the six-game series.
This Penguins team, unlike every other incarnation since that championship spring of 2009 that has somehow failed to live up to the past, is almost completely detached from those days of glory.
Nick Bonino, who scored the overtime winner in Game 6 after the Penguins had blown a 3-0 lead in the third period after inexplicably taking three straight delay-of-game penalties, was at Boston College in 2009 when Crosby and Alex Ovechkin combined for 27 points in the Penguins’ win.
Now he is part of one of the most formidable lines in the playoffs, centering Carl Hagelin, a midseason addition from the Anaheim Ducks, and Phil Kessel, the big-time addition by the Penguins in the offseason. Kessel, cast off by the Toronto Maple Leafs ostensibly because they didn’t feel they could win with him in the lineup, scored twice and added an assist on the series-clinching goal.
“A bit of difference, right?” Kessel said after Tuesday’s dramatic win. “I’m happy to be here. We’ve got a great group here and you want to just keep working.”
Much of the discussion coming into and, really, throughout this series was about the Capitals trying to shake off the burden of their own repeated playoff failures.
But the Penguins have quietly been battling their own demons since appearing in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, in 2008 and 2009.
That’s not how the playoffs work, of course. Or, more to the point, it hasn’t how the playoffs have worked for the Penguins. Or for previous versions of this team.
Fleury, who had a marvelous regular season, hasn’t played this spring in part because of injury but in part because 21-year-old Matt Murray is carving out a place as the future of the team’s goaltending with his perpetual calmness.
“I don’t know. I don’t really know what to think about it, to be honest,” Murray said after stopping 36 of 39 shots, including 19 in the third period and overtime.
“I mean, I’ve said this whole time, I’m just enjoying myself and this truly is a dream of mine when I was growing up as a kid, is to play in a situation like this. I try to just go out and play and have fun.”
Maybe the fact this team and indeed this series was so different from 2009 makes it all the more memorable for the Penguins.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Crosby said, joking. “It’s not even the same thing, to be honest. I think you’d be hard-pressed to replicate that. Trust me, I’d love to have however many goals it was, 7 or 8, in the series. I think that’s tough. No series is the same. Different things happen. You think about this series. Who would’ve thought three delay-of-game penalties in the last 10 minutes?”
Make no mistake, this is still Crosby’s team, the star around whom the rest of the team orbits, whether he’s collecting points or not.
And as though to reinforce that, the owner and Crosby’s former landlord, Mario Lemieux, wandered into the locker room to congratulate the players. He and Crosby sat and chatted and were joined by Letang, who might have been the Penguins’ best player this spring.
Few players have the perspective on this series that Eric Fehr did. He was a member of the Capitals team in 2009 that got blown out at home in Game 7 by Crosby et al.
He signed with the Penguins last summer and was still shaking his head in the dressing room after Tuesday’s win.
“That was the craziest game I think I’ve ever been a part of,” Fehr said. “We’ve got a good group of guys in here. There was never any doubts. I think a lot of teams could have folded under the pressure after that third period. … We never gave up.”
Jim Rutherford is finishing his second season as Penguins GM. His first year in Pittsburgh was marked by turmoil and a first-round playoff exit. So, it had to feel especially gratifying to watch this Penguins team, so diligently constructed, get up off the mat.
“One of the things we tried to do was build enough balance and depth in the team because you get in the playoffs and you see Sid and Geno and those guys get double-teamed, triple-teamed, mugged, and so they don’t get a lot of room out there and you need other guys to step up,” Rutherford told ESPN.com.
“This was a real character win for us. We had a pretty tough third period. We obviously were nervous. But we held on and then turned it on in overtime.”
What did he think when he saw Bonino’s arms go into the air to send the Penguins to the conference finals?
“When things like that happen, a thousand things race through your mind at one time,” Rutherford said. “We were pretty excited in the box.”
Same teams, same outcome, but a script written by so many different authors. Sounds about right.