History was made at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Sunday night, when the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team of the NHL’s salary-cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.1 Winning back-to-back titles wasn’t as big of a deal for much of the NHL’s history — through the 1970s and ’80s, it wasn’t uncommon to see teams win two, three or even four Stanley Cup titles in a row — but repeating has been notoriously difficult in recent decades.
The last franchise to go back-to-back was the Detroit Red Wings, whose ridiculously talented Steve Yzerman-led teams won in 1997 and 1998. And before that, it was Mario Lemieux’s Penguins, buttressed by some teenager from the Czech Republic named Jaromir Jagr; they lifted the Cup in the springs of 1991 and 1992, cementing Pittsburgh as a hockey town.
Just as those Penguins teams from the early 1990s owed a lot to their captain — Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in both Cup-winning campaigns — these Penguins have been powered by their leader, Sidney Crosby. He played brilliantly in this season’s playoffs, scoring 27 points in 24 games, including 7 in six games during the Final, and earning a second consecutive Smythe. Only one other player, beyond Crosby and Lemieux, has won back-to-back Smythes since the award was first given out in 1965.2 (And it was never done by all-time greats like Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy and Bobby Orr, although each of those players won the trophy at least twice in his career.)
Of course, netminder Matt Murray wasn’t too shabby, either. After returning from injury to play in the conference finals, Murray was virtually unbeatable. In 11 games, he recorded seven quality starts3 and stopped 93.7 percent of the shots he faced.
Here’s the most ludicrous thing of all: Murray led Pittsburgh to not one, but two titles as a rookie. After backstopping the Pens to the title last season, he still qualified as a rookie for 2016-17 because of the way the NHL judges rookie status. That elevates Murray into the same territory as Montreal great Ken Dryden, who as a rookie led the Habs to a Stanley Cup championship in 1971.
Dryden won the Conn Smythe that year, and because he’d played in only six regular-season games, he still qualified as a rookie for the 1971-72 season. The Habs failed to repeat, but Dryden won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie. Regardless of what Murray does over the rest of his career, he and Dryden will always be mentioned in the same breath. That’s not bad company!
Beyond Crosby and Murray, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin was exceptional, finishing as the leading scorer in the playoffs. Geno’s 28 points are tied for the sixth-most of any player in a single postseason since the lockout and are the second-most of his playoff career (trailing the insane 36 points he dropped in 2009, when he won the Conn Smythe).
In the first nine seasons they played together, Crosby and Malkin were playoff fixtures. They won one Cup, but otherwise, the Penguins during that time frequently seemed to disappoint in the postseason. After Pittsburgh’s championship in 2009, its record under coach Dan Bylsma was just 27-27 in the postseason, and the team was 0-5 in elimination games. Despite having two of the best players of their generation, the Pens were underachieving. The Crosby-Malkin era had held such promise, but each star was aging out of his prime. It was beginning to look like they might have missed their window for further championship success.
All that panic feels like a dream now. Two championships in succession have put Pittsburgh’s tally during the Crosby-Malkin era at three — one more than the team earned in the Lemieux-Jagr era.
So where does this place Crosby and Malkin in Penguins lore? It’s difficult (and kind of foolish) to compare eras. The game has changed a lot since Lemieux and Jagr played together, and Crosby and Malkin probably won’t touch their predecessors’ scoring totals. But in terms of titles, the Crosby-Malkin era has been the most successful run in the Penguins’ history. It’s hard to argue with all that silverware.