Seeds for the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run were planted early - in Nashville

Tribune News Service • Jun 15, 2017 at 9:30 AM

NASHVILLE — The day before the Penguins played the Nashville Predators during the regular season — on Oct. 22, 2016 — several members of the front office went to dinner at Jimmy Kelly’s, a Nashville-area steakhouse.

It was there that general manager Jim Rutherford delivered a message that resonated, essentially stating with confidence that the Penguins are going to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.

About a month earlier, as the Penguins gathered for training camp, coach Mike Sullivan called his team into a room and delivered a similar message: “Why not us?” Sullivan recalled on the ice following his team’s 2-0 win over the Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.

The seeds were planted early for the Penguins’ magnificent run to a championship.

Whether it was Rutherford, Sullivan or captain Sidney Crosby — who has long idolized Steve Yzerman, the captain on those Red Wings teams — the Penguins did not ease into any sort of bold belief that they could do this.

“It’s hard to remember because that was so long ago,” Matt Murray said of the Sullivan pow-wow. “But that was our mindset all season. ‘Why not us?’ We have a special group here. We just took things one day at a time and tried to do our job each and every day. Tried to get better. I think we peaked at the right time.”

Murray certainly did, stopping all 51 shots he faced over the final two games of the series to become the first goalie ever to win a pair of Stanley Cups before he was no longer officially a rookie.

No stranger to motivational tactics, Sullivan said he took the no-team-has-repeated-in-the-salary-cap-era story line and used it as fuel for his players.

Nobody thinks you can pull this off, Sullivan told them. History is against you. So go do it.

And they did.

“We met with them Day 1 of training camp,” Sullivan said. “The first thing I said to them was everybody’s telling us that we can’t do it. History’s telling us we can’t. All the experts are telling us we can’t.

“My challenge to them was, ‘Why not?’ ”

Before he challenged his players, Sullivan sought out legendary NHL head coach Scotty Bowman, the man behind the bench of those Red Wings teams, trying to learn all he could about the process.

“We weren’t going to let anyone else write our story,” Sullivan said. “These guys wanted to write the story for themselves, and they did it.”

Crosby rarely gets too far ahead of himself but did admit after the Penguins had clinched the Cup that wanting to do what Detroit did served as motivation, especially as they got going on this quest.

“We knew how tough it would be to get back here,” Crosby said. “We were so close to being eliminated a couple times. We hung in there and found a way. That’s what we did all year. It’s pretty special to be able to do it in back-to-back years.”

—Jason Mackey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—

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