By Teresa M. Walker
AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sidney Crosby is bringing the Stanley Cup back home to Pittsburgh for a second consecutive year.
Patric Hornqvist scored with 1:35 left and Matt Murray made 27 saves for his second straight shutout as the Penguins became the NHL’s first team in nearly two decades to repeat as champions following a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 6 on Sunday night.
The Penguins won their fifth title — all of which have been clinched on the road — to tie the Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier-era Edmonton Oilers for sixth on the all-time list. The Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98 were the last champion to defend their title, but the Penguins are the first to do it in the salary cap era.
“We knew it was going to be tough all year, but we just tried to keep with it,” said Crosby, who won his second Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. “We had a lot of injuries and things like that. We just kept finding ways. That was really what we did all season, all playoffs. It’s great to be able to do it.”
Hornqvist scored off Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s left elbow to end the scoreless game. Nashville challenged for goalie interference, but the goal was upheld. With Rinne pulled for an extra attacker, Carl Hagelin set off a bench celebration with an empty netter with 13.6 seconds left.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) June 12, 2017
Nashville lost for just the first time in regulation on home ice this postseason.
Colton Sissons had a goal erased by a whistle 67 seconds into the second period. The Predators went 0 of 4 with the man advantage, including 32 seconds of a 5-on-3 in the third.
Forget a golden anniversary: The Penguins will cap their 50th season with their names on the most famous silver cup in sports — again. It is also the third championship for Crosby and a handful of teammates from the 2009 title team, surpassing the two won by the Penguins teams led by current owner Mario Lemieux in the 1990s.
And it’s the second championship in 18 months for coach Mike Sullivan, who has yet to lose a playoff series since taking over after Mike Johnston was fired. Sullivan is the first American-born coach to win the Cup not once, but twice.
Matt Murray became the first goalie to win not one, but two Stanley Cups as a rookie after being a late-season call up a year ago and didn’t play enough games to get that tag removed. That’s something neither Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden or Cam Ward ever managed, but the 23-year-old Murray finished this Cup Final shutting out Nashville for the final 126:52.
The loss ended the upstart Predators’ deepest playoff run in the franchise’s 19-year history and one that became the talk of the town far beyond Music City, catfish and all.
Having won just three of 12 playoff series before this year, Nashville opened this postseason by eliminating the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in four games. In doing so, the Predators became the first eighth-seeded team to sweep a first-round series since the current playoff format was introduced in 1994. Nashville went through St. Louis and then Anaheim, with only captain Mike Fisher carrying any Cup Final experience on the roster.
The stingy Predators found Pittsburgh was up to the task, with the Penguins taking the first two games on home ice. Nashville roared back at home to even things up, but the Penguins routed Nashville to set up Game 6.
The Penguins ruined Nashville’s big party where the game coincided with the final night of CMA Music Festival, bringing more than 100,000 to downtown Nashville. Country star Luke Bryan serenaded fans from the rooftop of a honky-tonk in a performance that kicked off the television broadcast, and he also sang a four-song set for fans inside and outside the arena an hour before face-off.
Faith Hill became the latest to sing the national anthem with husband, star Tim McGraw, giving her a hug once finished before waving a towel in each hand. At least five catfish hit the ice before the face-off.
Then in a series that hadn’t featured even a single one-goal game was scoreless through the first 40 minutes. The Predators thought they had the first goal of the game, just like they did in Game 1 in Pittsburgh for being offsides, only to have referee Kevin Pollock wave it off immediately. He had whistled the play dead when he lost sight of the puck with Murray on the ice between him and the puck.
Sissons tapped the puck into the net 67 seconds into the second period behind Murray’s back. Officials huddled, but the goal was not allowed.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) June 12, 2017
Murray also stopped Sissons on a breakaway midway through the second and also gloved a shot from Viktor Arvidsson later in the period.
The Penguins also killed off 32 seconds of a 5-on-3 at 8:47 of the third after Trevor Daley punched Ryan Ellis with Olli Maatta already in the box for tripping. Murray made a big stop on a shot by Mattias Ekholm followed by a save on Arvidsson.
This championship season for the Penguins lacked some of the drama from a year ago, but it was far from a slam dunk. Washington won the President’s Trophy for a second straight season and pushed Pittsburgh to seven games in the second round. Ottawa did the same thing, forcing the Penguins to double overtime to clinch the Eastern Conference title.
Crosby, Malkin and others also played in the World Cup of Hockey before the season, making this an even longer year than usual. In the end, the Penguins had more than enough in the tank to bring home another title.