The Pittsburgh Penguins were facing the most difficult of road assignments when they went to the raucous Bridgestone Arena to try to win the Stanley Cup against an inspired and desperate Nashville Predators team Sunday night.
The first two visits to Nashville did not go well for the Penguins, as they were beaten handily by the home team. But Pittsburgh had put its best game on display in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, and there were no more secrets left between the teams.
It was simply a matter of will and execution in Game 6 because an experienced and talented team like Pittsburgh was not about to be intimidated by playing on the road.
The two teams battled through two scoreless periods, and overtime was beckoning, but the Penguins were not about to adhere to that script.
Instead, excellent work by Chris Kunitz allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in the Nashville zone, and Justin Schultz was able to control the puck at the blue line and fire a long shot that was just wide of Pekka Rinne's goal.
Former Predator Patric Hornqvist chased the puck down and whipped it off the goaltender, and it careened into the net with 1:35 left.
It was not a beautiful goal to anyone other than Pittsburgh and the team's fans, but it won the Stanley Cup.
The winning play was based on a never-give-up attitude from Kunitz, an opportunistic shot by Schultz that made it through traffic and the toughness demonstrated by Hornqvist to win the battle.
Was there some luck involved? Perhaps, but it was the kind of luck that comes when the game is played the right way for 60 minutes. Carl Hagelin added an empty-net goal in the final seconds, and the Penguins had their second consecutive Stanley Cup and their fifth in franchise history.
Can either the Penguins or Predators make it back to the Stanley Cup Final next year? Can the two teams get together in a rematch?
Let's start with the Stanley Cup champions
The Pens closed the series with back-to-back shutouts, and goalie Matt Murray had a stellar performance. However, the Pittsburgh defensive crew was tenacious and did not give Nashville's forwards any freedom in the offensive zone.
Conn Smythe Trophy winner Sidney Crosby recognized the outstanding job done by the Penguins' defensemen.
"That group of guys and what they're willing to do and what they bring, it's all so important," Crosby said, per Dan Rosen of NHL.com. "I could go through every guy, but they had to deal with that. They know the pressure that comes with losing a guy who plays 25-30 minutes, and they weren't intimidated by it. They took it on. They proved what they're capable of."
Brian Dumoulin, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole and Schultz are not all-stars, but they played like it in the Stanley Cup Final. This group should be even better when Kris Letang returns in 2017-18.
The Pens have the dynamic duo of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at center. This one-two punch means Pittsburgh can dominate offensively if either one of those players is having a good game. If they both are playing like stars at the same time, look out for a runaway.
However, head coach Mike Sullivan has a team of role players who can get the job done when the stars are having a difficult time getting untracked. Jake Guentzel came to the fore during the postseason, Phil Kessel can skate and score and players like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Hornqvist and Kunitz are capable of filling multiple roles whenever Sullivan needs them to handle greater responsibility.
Having the redoubtable Murray in goal also makes a strong case for the Penguins.
They will have to survive the expansion draft, the entry draft and free agency, but the Penguins will put a strong team on the ice again next season.
With the Washington Capitals likely to have a new look in 2017-18, the Pens' biggest challenge could come from the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens or the New York Rangers next year. The Sens seem to be the team that has the best chance of beating them after taking Pittsburgh to double overtime of the seventh game in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Pens could get back to the Stanley Cup Final, but it may be quite a bit harder for the Predators.
As the No. 2 wild-card team in the Western Conference, they started the playoffs as an afterthought. Everyone knew the Preds were tough, aggressive and talented, but nobody expected a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
They swept the Blackhawks, and that first-round win provided the impetus for a Honky Tonk run at the Stanley Cup.
Their fans believed, and the Preds found ways to beat the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
They received brilliant goaltending from Rinne, timely scoring from Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen—injured in Western Conference Final—and a tremendous effort from their talented defense.
The defensive crew, led by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, may be the best and deepest in the league.
If they can get more scoring and solid goaltending next year, there's no reason the Preds couldn't make another run at the championship round.
However, finding enough offense and getting excellent goaltending may be issues. The Preds need to show they can play more consistently in the regular season and win when they are expected to.
That will be one of their biggest challenges. Also, they are going to have to overcome Chicago and St. Louis in the Central Division, as well as the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames from the Pacific Division.
The margin is slim, and the Preds cannot afford any missteps if they are going to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final.
The likelihood of a rematch is slim. The Penguins became the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1997-98. To think they can make it three in a row is too much to ask.
Pittsburgh should have another strong season, but it will get stopped in the Eastern Conference Final.
Nashville was the hot team in this year's playoffs, and it is not likely to take on that role next year. A new surprise team will step up in 2018. The Predators will make the playoffs next year, but they won't get past the second round.