In Praise of the Unsung and Unexpected Heroes of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup Run

Winning a Stanley Cup often comes down to which team’s best players are playing the best. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Well, it often really is that simple.

Take this year’s Cup Final, for example. The Pittsburgh Penguins — led by Conn Smythe winner Sidney Crosby and fellow stars Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang — consistently dominated the run of play through six games against the San Jose Sharks. Their superior speed, ultimately, proved too much for the Sharks, leaving Joe Thornton and co. gassed and on their heels for much of the series.

But the beauty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that to win 16 games over four series, you can’t rely solely on the success of your stars. Yes, they need to be flying. But it’s the new heroes who emerge — the players who go from nobodies to household names in the blink of an eye — that truly put a team over the top and pave the way to a championship. The 2016 Penguins had no shortage of guys like that on the roster. Here, we celebrate a handful of the finest.

Nick Bonino

Given the Penguins’ offence-heavy lineup, if any of you picked Nick Bonino to finish tied for third in team scoring in the playoffs, put your hands up nice and high. And if you do have your hands up right now, you’re probably lying. Together with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, Bonino centred what turned into arguably the Penguins most consistent line throughout the playoffs. Bonino’s chemistry with his linemates allowed coach Mike Sullivan to split up his top weapons, leaving Crosby, Malkin and Kessel each on a different line. Good luck to an opponent trying to shut all three of those lines down. It’s just too much depth to handle. Late in Game 1 of the Cup Final against the Sharks, with the score tied at two, it was Bonino who scored the goal that held up as the game winner with just 2:32 left in the third period.

With a cap hit of just $1.9 million, 4 goals and 14 assists is far more production than could have been bargained for from Bonino. Unfortunately for him, he has a year left on his deal and won’t hit unrestricted free agency until after next season. Had he been a UFA this offseason, it’s safe to say he would have been in an excellent bargaining position.

Matt Murray

When Marc-Andre Fleury suffered his second concussion of the season just a couple of weeks before the playoffs, it should have been a disaster for the Penguins. For most teams, losing their No. 1 netminder after the trade deadline, especially one as talented as Fleury, would have been an impossible hurdle to overcome.

With really no other available option, they turned to Matt Murray, a 22-year-old rookie with a grand total of eight NHL games under his belt. But Murray was a revelation down the stretch, winning his first four starts before suffering a head injury in the final game of the regular season. By Game 3 of the Penguins’ first-round series against the New York Rangers, Murray was back in net, helping Pittsburgh to finish off the Rangers in five games. Then, he played every minute of the second round as the Penguins dispatched the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games.

It wasn’t until Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning that Murray finally surrendered his starting spot to Fleury. But after the Penguins lost that game 4-3 in overtime, Murray returned for Games 6 and 7, yielding just three goals en route to Pittsburgh’s first appearance in the Final since 2009.

The incredible poise shown by the inexperienced Murray was reminiscent of what Cam Ward did in 2006, taking over as the No. 1 goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes late in the season, before leading them to a Stanley Cup as a 22-year-old rookie. But not only has Murray helped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship, he’s left general manager Jim Rutherford with an interesting decision to make heading into next season. With every indication that Murray is ready to assume the full-time starting job, it could leave Marc-Andre Fleury and his $5.75 million cap hit for three more seasons expendable, if an interested buyer can be found. A move of that nature would save the Penguins over $5 million in cap space with Murray still on his bargain-basement entry-level deal.

Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust

Last December was full of upheaval for the Pens: not long after fan favourite Pascal Dupuis announced his early retirement due to recurring blood clots, head coach Mike Johnston was ousted in favour of Mike Sullivan, who’d been leading the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the team’s AHL affiliate.

To fill the sudden hole on the wing left by Dupuis, Sullivan called up Conor Sheary, one of his minor league favourites, to join the Penguins at the NHL level. About a month later, Sheary’s running mate Bryan Rust was also summoned from the AHL, and both have never looked back, quickly becoming regulars through the latter half of the seasons.

In the playoffs, the two 24-year-olds raised their play yet again. Sheary, who fit in well on a line with Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist, scored in both Games 1 and 2 of the Final, including an OT winner that gave the Pens a commanding 2-0 series lead.

Rust, meanwhile, also came up big when the Penguins needed it most. On a line with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, Rust scored late in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final to hand Pittsburgh a two-goal lead with the Lightning pressing hard. In Game 7, Rust notched a pair of goals including the game winner, sending the Penguins to the Cup Final. To top it all off, the Michigan native kicked off that series with a bang, Rust scored the first goal of the first game against the Sharks.

If these two — alongside fellow young guns Bonino and Murray — are any indication, the future is certainly looking bright for the Pens. Don’t be shocked to see ’em back in the Final sooner rather than later.

Photo: Pool / Getty Images