The Pittsburgh Penguins have traveled a tough road to get to the Stanley Cup Finals in search of their first championship since 2009.
Pittsburgh opened the playoffs by taking care of the Rangers in five games, a huge psychological hurdle considering they were eliminated by the Rangers the past couple of years.
The Penguins followed that up by beating the best team in the league, the Washington Capitals, in six games.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, they came back from a 3-2 deficit in the series to beat the the defending Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.
The Penguins turned their season around when they brought in Mike Sullivan to take over as head coach and acquired ex-Ranger Carl Hagelin from the Ducks, and they were the hottest team in the league since February 1.
Penguins forward Kris Letang said of what it is about this team that’s so special, what makes it such a tight-knit group, “We have a good group of guys, guys that want to hang out together all the time. Sometimes you have groups that tend to be separated in different groups. But these guys, we’ve got Phil, he wants to hang out with everybody, wants to have fun. It kind of brings everybody together when you have a guy that played that many games in the league.
As a team, for the rest, the speed of our team, we know that’s our advantage. That’s what we have to use. When we play into our system, that’s why we get successful. Yeah, that’s what’s special about it.”
Letang said of the Penguins being a cohesive group no matter who is on the ice, “When we play defense, everybody plays together, all five guys. All the forwards help out. Every time you step in, doesn’t matter, you know your job, you know you got the support of different guys on the ice. We always try to have good support, make sure if somebody gets beat, there’s always somebody to back him up. I think it’s one of the keys that we play a five-man unit.”
The key line for the Penguins is the Bryan Rust, Engeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz line.
Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan said of what prompted him to put those three together and if he’s surprised how the three of them have gelled together as quickly as they did, “We’ve moved different parts around Sid and Geno over the last two months to try to create the balance that we’re looking for and also complement both Sid and Geno with their strengths and how they play. We’ve moved different people around those guys. Quite honestly, we’ll probably continue to do that, depending on how the series goes. But, you know, when we put Rusty on that right side with Geno and Kuny, we like the line.
“We thought it had a lot of speed. We thought they were hard to play against. Rusty and Kuny are very responsible players at both ends of the rink. I think they can track pucks down and pursue pucks and help Geno get the puck back. He obviously is one of the premier play-makers in the league and just a great offensive player.
That line we liked over the last few games. They’ve really provided a lot of offense for us, but also provided some stability in our D zone as well just because of the skill sets that we think are complementary. Certainly when we put those guys together, we really liked what we saw.”
Sullivan said of putting together a defense corps focused on speed and puck movement, and if he’s worried about durability at all and if he thinks they’re more susceptible to injuries, “I don’t think so. I think our ability to get back to pucks quickly, move the puck quickly, is one of the advantages, one of the strengths that we have. I think we have a very courageous defense group. They go back for pucks, they take hits when they have to make plays. That’s an important element of our team concept in coming out of our end zone.
I think it’s just the nature of today’s game. It’s difficult to provide any sort of interference for a forecheck. So defensemen have to take hits. I think we’ve got a very brave group. They go back for pucks, they take hits to make plays. I think their mobility a lot of times gives them an ability to avoid body checks or only get a partial check and not have to bear the brunt of the full force. When we pass and move, I think that’s when we’re at our best. So I don’t think we’re any more susceptible than any other group.”
The Sharks have a strong power play, and Sullivan said of the biggest challenges they present, “Certainly our discipline is going to be important. I think it was in the last series. We faced some pretty good power plays throughout the course of these playoffs.
So San Jose is another one of those teams that has a very good power play. Our discipline has to be there for us, as it has been throughout the course of the playoffs. I trust our guys in that regard.
Certainly they’re a tough power play to defend because they have a lot of movement and they have a lot of threats. It’s difficult to key on any one guy because they have so many different threats.
“I think what we have to do is continue to understand why our penalty kill is successful, the pressure points and areas where we can put that power play under pressure and force them to have to make plays under duress. I think that’s going to be an important aspect of our penalty kill. I think it’s been one of the strengths of our group, not just in the regular season, but the post-season as well. Our penalty kill has consistently and quietly been a stabilizing aspect of our game and it’s won a lot of games for us here over the last four months,” said Sullivan.