Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Sports

Pens built champion around two big stars

PITTSBURGH — When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, a dynasty appeared to be in the offing. It didn't quite work out that way. Injuries and inconsistent postseason play sent the franchise into a full-fledged identity crisis.

The wait for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to bookend the championship they helped capture seven years ago came to a blissful, euphoric end for them Sunday night in San Jose. Their six-game triumph over the Sharks in the final capped a meteoric six-month sprint under Mike Sullivan, whose arrival in mid-December provided the wake-up call the talented but erratic roster needed.

"It's not an easy win in this league," Malkin said. "Every team in the league deserves to win. We play against San Jose and they haven't won in 25 years. It's not easy."

Maybe, but for Pittsburgh the path might be smoother than most. The group that poured over the boards and onto the ice at the end of a 100-game plus marathon of a season appears to be well-appointed for the future thanks to moves by general manager Jim Rutherford to build around his two stars.

Oddsmakers made Pittsburgh an early favorite to win it all again next year, heady territory considering there hasn't been a repeat champion in nearly two decades.

The core of Crosby, Malkin, forward Phil Kessel and defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are all 30 or under and all signed through at least 2022. Goaltender Matt Murray — whose 15 wins in the playoffs tied an NHL rookie record — turned 22 last month. Young forwards Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl are in their mid-20s. Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist will be back.

So will Sullivan, who began the season at American Hockey League affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He ended it posing at center ice with his sport's biggest trophy as the centerpiece after creating a relentless, swarming team that often tilted the ice for long stretches.

"Mike came in and made it pretty clear how he wanted us to play," said Crosby, the team captain, as he sat next to his Conn Smythe Trophy which is awarded to the player voted the best of the postseason. "He let us know what he expected from each individual guy, and I think guys just welcomed the opportunity and welcomed the challenge."

Blues: Mike Yeo was hired as the successor-in-waiting for coach Ken Hitchcock, who has declared that next season will be his last before retiring. Yeo was fired Feb. 13 by the Wild after five seasons.

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