SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Whether it was Chris Kunitz’s hustle on a backcheck ruining a breakaway, Bryan Rust’s motor negating an icing or Sidney Crosby throwing his body in front of a shot before Patric Hornqvist sealed the deal, the Pittsburgh Penguins showed they didn’t want to leave destiny to chance.
After eight weeks of grinding to the brink of summer vacation, the Penguins, exactly six months after making a coaching change, avoided a winner-take-the-Stanley-Cup Game 7 by winning the final game of the NHL’s 2015-16 season.
Sure, it would have been a storybook ending if they did the deed in front of thousands of Penguins fanatics three nights earlier. But they’re not picky how they hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. Riding a rookie goalie, Pittsburgh accomplished the feat in the enemy Shark Tank with a well-earned 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday night.
It was the second Stanley Cup of the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era and first since 2009.
“I have a greater appreciation this time around,” said Crosby, 28, who added a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP to his overstuffed trophy case. “At a young age, going [to] back-to-back [Finals] like we did, you think it’s just going to be an annual thing.
“You just appreciate how hard it is to win it.”
In a classy move, Capt. Crosby handed the Stanley Cup first to teammate Trevor Daley, who didn’t play in the series due to a broken ankle. Then, Pascal Dupuis, who had his career prematurely ended in December because of a blood clot, was handed the silver chalice. Finally, the hardware was given to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who because of a concussion lost his job to Matt Murray. All Murray did this postseason was tie a rookie record with 15 wins.
“It’s about your team, and those guys showed that,” Crosby said. “Total team effort.”
Despite once again having to face a staggering performance by Sharks goalie Martin Jones, the Penguins ended the season of the Western Conference champs in a scintillating hockey game.
Big Game Logan Couture made the barn erupt with a second-period tying goal for San Jose, but Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang answered 79 seconds later by burying Crosby’s setup for a 2-1 lead.
The Penguins then played prevent defense to perfection. They held San Jose to one third-period shot until Hornqvist’s empty-netter.
One reason was the third-period play of veteran Matt Cullen. He played seven shifts in the final 10 minutes in a top-6 role. Cullen will get to take the Stanley Cup home to Moorhead for the second time in his career and first time in 10 years.
The difference this time is Cullen has three boys who weren’t around the last time. In an emotional scene, Cullen, 39, got to celebrate on the ice with crying Brooks, 9, Wyatt, 7, and Joey, 6; wife Bridget; father Terry; brothers Mark and Joe; and sister Anne.
“To get this opportunity, I just can’t be thankful enough,” said Cullen, with tears welled in his eyes. “I’m pretty blessed to be here, and to get to share it with my family and my boys and you know how much Bridget cares about it, I’m really blessed. It’s been just such a special run. I can’t believe it.”
Cullen thought his career could be over last summer until Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, the GM with Carolina when Cullen won a Cup there, came calling last July.
He secretly played with a broken toe since Game 2 of the Lightning series. He got injections before every game just to be able to endure the pain of getting his skate on.
Once upon a time, Cullen was the young guy looking up to the vets. Now, teammates call him “Dad.”
“I look at him as an extension of our coaching staff,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
Terry Cullen, his high school coach, couldn’t be prouder.
“To watch him with his sons, it’s an emotional time,” Terry Cullen said, his voice cracking. “It’s surreal. I guess you couldn’t have written it much nicer, I really don’t think so. It was way better than we could have dreamed.”
Could his son now ride off into the sunset after 18 seasons?
“I don’t know. It’s hard to top this,” Matt Cullen said. “I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I’m just going to enjoy it for a little bit.”
Michael Russo covers the NHL for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Russostrib email@example.com