Pen­guins in his­toric com­pany with Cup

First team in 19 years to re­peat

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY WILL GRAVES

PITTS­BURGH | The salary cap was a pas­sion project for Mario Lemieux, the owner, when the NHL wres­tled with it dur­ing the 2004-05 lock­out even though he knows it would have been some­thing Mario Lemieux, the player, would have fought to the bit­ter end.

“We couldn’t com­pete with the (New York) Rangers and LA and the big mar­kets and Chicago and Detroit,” the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins Hall of Famer-turned-chair­man re­called.

So Lemieux pushed for the cap dur­ing the NHL’s lost win­ter, well aware the rip­ple ef­fects would in­clude a rise in league par­ity at the po­ten­tial ex­pense of the dy­nas­ties that have been a part of the league since it started award­ing the Stan­ley Cup nearly a cen­tury ago.

The math was easy for Lemieux. Bet­ter to have 30ish sol­vent and com­pet­i­tive clubs than just a hand­ful.

“The salary cap gave us a chance to spend to the cap and be on level play­ing fields with the other teams,” he said.

The cap has proven to be more of a speed bump than a road block for the Pen­guins. The proof was all around Lemieux as he spoke on the ice at Bridge­stone Arena on Sun­day night af­ter the Pen­guins nudged past the Nash­ville Preda­tors in Game 6 of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal to be­come the first team in 19 years and the first of the salary cap era to win back-to-back ti­tles.

“It’s hard to win the Cups as we’ve found over the last 10-12 years,” Lemieux said.

Just not im­pos­si­ble.

The Pen­guins flew home to Pitts­burgh on Mon­day with the Cup in their pos­ses­sion for the third time in nine years. A down­town pa­rade is sched­uled for Wed­nes­day, a party that’s on the verge of be­com­ing a rite of late spring.

Pitts­burgh has done it by in­vest­ing heav­ily in their core group and find­ing the right com­ple­ment of play­ers and staff around Sid­ney Crosby, Ev­geni Malkin and Kris Le­tang to make it work.

“I al­ways say best or­ga­ni­za­tion, amaz­ing team,” Malkin said. “We have great chance win ev­ery year.”

That’s not how it’s sup­posed to work nowa­days. Cham­pi­onship win­dows are sup­posed to be nar­rower with the cap in place, not wider. Sure, Chicago has won it three times in six sea­sons in the cap era but the Black­hawks were forced to blow it up af­ter 2010. The Kings won it all in 2012 and 2014, and are now in the process of start­ing over.

Not Pitts­burgh. The Pen­guins have more Cup ap­pear­ances (four), play­off wins (90) and reg­u­lar-sea­son vic­to­ries (467) over the last decade than any team in the NHL. And it’s not re­ally that close. While Crosby is loath to talk about his “legacy” — he won’t turn 30 un­til Au­gust — the way he de­scribes the only fran­chise he’s ever known sounds an aw­ful lot like a “dy­nasty.”

“Your goal is to win ev­ery year and our team just had a col­lec­tion of guys that knew how to win, knew how to find ways,” Crosby said af­ter pick­ing up his sec­ond straight Conn Smythe Tro­phy as play­off MVP.

Hav­ing a coach with an abil­ity to chal­lenge his stars with­out alien­at­ing them and a gen­eral man­ager with a knack for find­ing the right pieces helps. When GM Jim Rutherford re­placed Ray Shero in the sum­mer of 2014, he raised eye­brows when he said he only planned to be in the job a cou­ple of years.

Funny, no­body’s ask­ing how much longer the 68-year-old is stick­ing around any­more. He gave coach Mike Sul­li­van the blunt di­rec­tive to cut through the noise when he hired him to re­place Mike John­ston in De­cem­ber 2015. The for­mer grinder with 54 goals in 709 ca­reer NHL games turned out to be the perfect con­duit to get the Pen­guins to play fast and, to bor­row Sul­li­van’s pet phrase, “play the right way.”

The Pen­guins are right up against the salary cap an­nu­ally but they also don’t over­pay their stars. Con­sid­er­ing their value to the team both Crosby ($8.7 mil­lion) and Malkin ($9.5 mil­lion) are bar­gains. They’re not the only ones.

Rookie Jake Guentzel (NHL rookie play­off record-ty­ing 21 points), Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Scott Wil­son all found them­selves play­ing vi­tal roles along­side Pitts­burgh’s cor­ner­stones at some point dur­ing the post­sea­son. None of them had a cap hit of more than $675,000.

No won­der Malkin is hardly in the mood to put his ca­reer into per­spec­tive. He’ll turn 31 next month. He, Phil Kes­sel and Le­tang are all un­der con­tract through 2022. Crosby un­til 2025.

“I think we still play to­gether long time and maybe when we re­tire think about it,” Malkin said. “We’re still young, still hun­gry and of course we want more.”

If Malkin and Crosby can stay healthy, Pitts­burgh will cer­tainly be right there. Odds­mak­ers made them the early fa­vorite for a three-peat, some­thing that hasn’t been done since the New York Is­landers won four straight from 1980-83, a full year be­fore Lemieux made his NHL de­but and nearly a half decade be­fore Malkin and Crosby were born.

There will be turnover. Goal­tender Marc-An­dre Fleury’s hand­ing off of the Cup to Matt Mur­ray was a sym­bolic pass­ing of the torch. Fleury will al­most cer­tainly play else­where next sea­son and de­fense­man Justin Schultz is a re­stricted free agent but may have played him­self into a con­tract too rich for the Pen­guins to match.

Rutherford and Sul­li­van will get to work try­ing to fit the pieces to­gether again. Their fran­chise cor­ner­stone will take a brief breather this sum­mer, maybe go fish­ing back home in Nova Sco­tia and then start point­ing to­ward next sea­son.

“You have a small win­dow to play and to have a ca­reer, and I feel for­tu­nate,” Crosby said. “I also un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it is. So you just want to try to make the best of it.”

Over and over and over again if you can.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pitts­burgh Pen­guins cen­ter Sid­ney Crosby car­ries the Stan­ley Cup af­ter the Pen­guins de­feated the Nash­ville Preda­tors in Game 6 on Sun­day.

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