NASHVILLE – With a sea of humanity on the streets of Nashville and a rowdy crowd inside Bridgestone Arena, an old Predators fan favorite returned to Music City, spoiled the party and delivered the NHL its first repeat champion since 1998.
Patric Hornqvist, a prideful pick by the Predators’ scouting staff because he was the final pick in the 2005 draft, broke a scoreless deadlock with 95 seconds left in regulation Sunday night to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 2-0 victory and a second consecutive Stanley Cup.
The 30-year-old, traded to Pittsburgh in 2014 in the James Neal deal, banked a Justin Schultz shot that ricocheted off the end wall off Pekka Rinne’s left arm for the stunning winning goal.
“There were a lot of guys telling us we can’t do it,” Hornqvist said. “And now we’re standing here and we’re going to celebrate with all of Pittsburgh in a few days. … This is where I played most of my games. To win it here. To score that goal. It couldn’t end any better for me.”
In a game that featured a controversial disallowed goal for the Predators and a scintillating goalie duel, the Penguins got to celebrate their fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history soon after Carl Hagelin cinched things with an empty-net goal.
With people wall to wall on Broadway to enjoy the festivities around the rink, including Luke Bryan performing a concert on the rooftop of the famous Tootsies, with Faith Hill singing the national anthem, Tim McGraw waving a towel, Brad Paisley swinging a catfish and Ben Rector and Cage the Elephant performing between periods, the Predators played a tremendous hockey game but couldn’t beat Matt Murray, who ended his postseason with consecutive shutouts and back-to-back rings despite still being technically a rookie.
“It’s difficult to think we’re not playing tomorrow,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said.
It was a bitter finish for the Predators, who thought they struck early in the second period when Colton Sissons lunged for a loose puck and scored on a rebound. But referee Kevin Pollock, screened by Filip Forsberg, who took the initial shot, and defenseman Trevor Daley, lost sight of the puck and blew his whistle before the puck entered the net.
That’s an unreviewable play and was difficult for Nashville to stomach.
But, Rinne said maturely, “We all make mistakes. It’s a tough one.”
Murray was sensational after that, denying Sissons on a breakaway, and making three saves, including a robbery of Mike Fisher, during a 5-on-3 and subsequent 5-on-4.
Then, Hornqvist came through with the winner.
“Hornie’s been such a sparkplug for us and got the big one there,” said veteran Matt Cullen after maybe his final NHL game and third Cup championship.
The Penguins are undoubtedly the team of the salary cap era.
Playing in their fourth Stanley Cup Final since 2008, the Penguins won their third Cup in the age of Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin. Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and future Hall of Fame sidekick Jaromir Jagr won two with the Penguins in 1991 and ’92.
“It’s something all of these guys, and the organization, can cherish for the rest of our lives,” said Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner. “It’s unbelievable.”
Crosby won his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. The Penguins became one of seven franchises to win at least five Stanley Cups. All five Cups were won on the road.
In the past 10 years, the Penguins have won a league-high 90 playoff games, the most in the NHL and 14 more than the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It’s an amazing team,” Malkin said. “We have a great chance to win every year. It’s an unbelievable feeling, lots of emotion. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up, new day, amazing day.”
Coach Mike Sullivan’s eyes were glistening.
“This group of players has overcome so many adversities,” he said. “From Day One of training camp, I said, ‘Everybody’s telling us that we can’t do it. History’s telling us that we can’t, all the experts are telling us we can’t repeat.’ And my challenge to them was, ‘Why not?’ We weren’t going to let anybody else write our story.”