PITTSBURGH — During his first day on the job in mid-December, Mike Sullivan looked around the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room and saw a couple of MVPs, a handful of All-Stars and millionaires in abundance.
He also saw a group languishing in the bottom of the Eastern Conference. No life. No momentum. And — at the time, it seemed — little hope for a quick fix.
“I said, ‘I think we have great players,’” Sullivan said. “Our challenge is to make a great team.”
Five months later, the collection of seemingly mismatched parts Sullivan inherited has evolved into a juggernaut. The Penguins skate. They shoot. They defend. Then they skate and shoot and play defense some more. Sullivan calls it “playing the right way,” a system that when working properly can suffocate opponents the way Pittsburgh did in a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night.
“They were on top of us pretty good,” Lightning forward Brian Boyle said.
And they didn’t let up. The Penguins outshot the Lightning 39-17 while winning a Game 7 on home ice for the first time in 21 years, receiving a pair of goals from rookie Bryan Rust and sweeping bodies out of 22-year-old goaltender Matt Murray’s crease.
The team criticized for being too reliant on stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin during six fruitless springs since that giddy June night in Detroit in 2009 in which the Penguins won the franchise’s third Cup is suddenly deep, resilient and surging as it prepares to face Western Conference champion San Jose in Game 1 of the Cup Final on Monday night.
“I know there’s a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself,” Sullivan said.
One that has spent the last six weeks evening scores in a sense. The Penguins took out the New York Rangers in five games to open the postseason, knocked out Presidents’ Trophy winners Washington in six and withstood the defending Eastern Conference champion Lightning by wearing Tampa Bay down.
“I think throughout the playoffs, we’ve played different styles, different teams and been able to adjust and get to our game,” Crosby said. “The biggest challenge is ahead of us.”
Captain Joe Pavelski scored an early goal, Joel Ward added two of his own and San Jose advanced to its first Stanley Cup final in franchise history by beating the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
Joonas Donskoi also scored, Logan Couture had an empty-netter and Martin Jones made 24 saves as a Sharks team notorious for postseason letdowns will now play for the championship that has eluded stars like Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
Thornton assisted on Pavelski’s goal to set the tone and Marleau had two assists in the third period that set off chants of “We Want The Cup! We Want The Cup!”
The Stanley Cup starts Monday night.