By Cam Cole – National Post
Home ice would have been nice. But when you win a Stanley Cup, you don’t quibble about whose surface you’re skating on while passing around the hallowed old urn.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, having wasted a bagful of chances to finish the Cup final in five games at Consol Energy Center on Thursday, closed out the San Jose Sharks here Sunday evening in yet another 3-1 nail-biter, to end a series in which neither team could conclusively bury the other.
Kris Letang’s bad angle goal in the second period, which restored the Pens’ lead 79 seconds after they had lost it, proved to be the winner. From there to the 18:58 mark of the third, when Patric Hornqvist took careful aim at an empty net and buried Sidney Crosby’s pass for the clincher in a 3-1 game, it was an exercise in shot-blocking, fierce backchecking and trying not to make the fatal mistake.
It is the Pens’ first Cup since 2009 and came on the exact anniversary of their 2-1 road victory in Game 7 that spring against Detroit. The win Sunday made it two each for franchise centrepieces Sidney Crosby and his mentor, now Pens co-owner Mario Lemieux, who won his back-to-back in 1991 and ’92.
But it wasn’t Crosby’s contribution that was most noticeable in the closing movements of the six-game final, though he missed a half-dozen chances ranging from merely great to gilt-edged to put this one away early — and, somewhat surprisingly, was voted winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ outstanding player.
For the Sharks, the last home game of their 25th anniversary season was bittersweet — they’d made a nice try to become only the second team ever to come back from trailing three games to one in the final, but pre-game had seen a dead-silent tribute to the dead and wounded in the awful mass murder in Orlando, and before they dropped the puck to start the second period, players on both teams stood quietly to watch a video tribute to Gordie Howe.
As was the case for most of the series, the Penguins swarmed, threatened, battered away at the San Jose net in the first period, but couldn’t build on the 1-0 lead they took on a power-play goal by defenceman Brian Dumoulin at 8:16 of the first period.
Dumoulin had drawn the penalty, a trip by Dainius Zubrus, and 26 seconds into the power play he out-waited shot blocker Melker Karlsson, spun him out of position and fired a point shot that went under Martin Jones’ right arm.
Sidney Crosby had four good looks in the period but shot wide on one, fanned on another and two more were saved by Jones, the thief of Game 5, who was the only reason the Pens weren’t in total command on the board after 20 minutes.
The Sharks bounced back with a hard, fast, muscular second period and frequently had the Penguins in disarray in their defensive zone, but when the ice fog had cleared, the visitors were still in front.
Logan Couture tied it with a nifty toe-drag and shot that beat Matt Murray through the wickets 6:27 into the period, but 79 seconds later, Letang ended a sensational shift by one-timing Crosby’s pass from behind the net.
The number of chances Crosby missed swelled to five in that period, and Chris Kunitz inexplicably turned down an open net to pass to Evgeni Malkin, who was too shocked to steer the return pass into the net — a ridiculous opportunity missed, one that would have haunted the Penguins to their graves had they lost the game and then the series.
But despite often looking as though he was fighting the puck, rookie Matt Murray held the fort for the final 33-plus minutes, and the Penguins’ speed and tenacity on the puck eventually took the gas out of the Sharks’ attack.
The victory was Murray’s 15th of the post-season, tying the record of rookie goaltenders shared by Patrick Roy, Ron Hextall and Cam Ward.
On the final night, the Penguins’ big guns were all present and accounted for: Crosby, Letang, Malkin, Phil Kessel. The Sharks got big performances once again from Logan Couture and Brent Burns, but the two Joes — Thornton and Pavelski — were mostly frustrated and thwarted at every turn.
Crosby, like Chicago’s Jonathan Toews before him, won the Smythe without scoring a goal in the final, but there was no automatic choice on either side.
And in any case, the big trophy was the one they all wanted.
Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup Championships.