by USA Today All Sports

 

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup Final in six games, are the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE — Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan says a team cannot become the first NHL team in the salary cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships without bruising egos and hurting feelings.

“We push them hard,” Sullivan said. “It’s not always warm and fuzzy.”

But the agony of the journey was all forgotten Sunday when the Penguins downed the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game 6 on the strength of Matt Murray’s 27-save shutout and Patric Hornqvist’s late goal. It is the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup championship.

This is a special team. This is a unique collection of talent. This is probably a team that deserves consideration to be called a dynasty. In the last 10 years, they’ve been to five conference finals and four Stanley Cup Finals, winning three of them.

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“We believe we have a unique chemistry within our room,” Sullivan said. “We think it’s a competitive advantage.”

With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way, the Penguins can dominate with talent. But it’s mental toughness that has carried them to two titles over the past 12 months.

“Everybody kept saying ‘repeating is hard to do,’” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. “But no one said we couldn’t do it.”

Sullivan said he doesn’t believe you could find two better players to build a team around than Malkin and Crosby. In this Cup run, the two players combined for 18 goals and 55 points.

“I think they are appreciative of one another – at least that’s my observation,” Sullivan said.

Rutherford said the Penguins were able to repeat because they were “a determined, gutsy, talented group of guys.”

“We went through a lot of adversity – we had a lot of key injuries,” Rutherford said.

The Penguins lost No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang to injury before the playoffs began. They are arguably the first team to win a Stanley Cup without a big-minute, elite defenseman since the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes. Rutherford was general manager of that team as well.

“Our team is led by the greatest player in the game,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford played with Gordie Howe and against Bobby Orr, and was an NHL general manager during the heydays of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux.

Now that Crosby has three Stanley Cup championships and two Conn Smythe trophies, Rutherford believes he deserves great recognition.

“Sid should be in the conversation with the top three or four when we talk about the greatest of all-time,” Rutherford said.

Sullivan called him “arguably the best player of this generation.”

“He’s a guy who just knows how to win,” Sullivan said.

Crosby was asked what drives him, and he said, “This (winning) feeling right now. You can’t match that.”

The Penguins didn’t like talking about the quest to repeat, but it was always in the back of their minds. They were aware that the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings were the last to successfully defend their title.

“I remember watching those Red Wings teams; It was something special,” said Penguins defenseman Ian Cole. “I knew that if there was a team that could do it – it would be us. We had a ton of confidence, all the confidence in the world – it was something that no one on the team gave up.”

Sullivan talked about it in his own way.

“Coach drove the point of ‘cementing your own legacy,’” Cole said. “We knew it was going to be a challenge to do it. There’s a reason no one had done it for a long time.”

Now the question is whether this team can win again. Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and Letang, who are all signed long-term, and goalie Murray, who posted shutouts in Game 5 and 6, are the foundation blocks. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust among others are still younger players.

They have some free agents, with Trevor Daley and Nick Bonino chief among them. Could the Penguins win again?

“Let us have two or three days off,” Rutherford said, “and then I will let you know.”