Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal against Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators during the second period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- It's a play they've made so many times together that Sidney Crosby didn't need to see much to know Chris Kunitz wanted the puck. There was brief eye contact but it was the way Kunitz was holding his stick that signaled he was ready.
Crosby had just retrieved a pass from along the boards and was skating toward Kunitz when he started to raise his stick slightly in anticipation. "He wanted the puck," Crosby said. "He stopped in that area. He wanted to let one rip. I don't know how much he got on it, but he put it in the right spot."
With that pass and shot, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Ottawa Senators3-2 in double overtime on Thursday and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the second consecutive year. A team that has overcome just about every kind of injury during their defense of the Stanley Cup is now four wins away from a repeat, four wins away from doing something no team in the salary-cap era has done.
That it took seven games and double overtime against the resilient Senators fit right in with how this postseason has gone for the Penguins. None of it has come easy.
Not the opponents, with the Columbus Blue Jackets (fourth-best team in the league) and the Washington Capitals (Presidents' Trophy winners) in the first two rounds. Not the breaks, with Penguins dealing with more injuries than just about anyone. None of it.
And yet with every win, they inched closer to a repeat -- and the closer they got, the more their competitive fire burned brighter. This game was the culmination.
"You talk about how difficult it is to get back to the finals two years in a row; when you're seeing all that, you start to see it first hand," Crosby said. "We just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up and we trust in that and believed in that whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence."
Crosby is at forefront of it all.
No game captured his iron will more in this series than Game 6 in Ottawa. He didn't score a goal or register a point. His team didn't even win, thanks to an incredible performance from Senators goalie Craig Anderson.
But he was the target of constant abuse from the Senators. His eye was gouged. Senators forward Mike Hoffman squirted him with a water bottle from the bench. Crosby was pinned to the ice in the middle of the play as the Senators got away with liberties that certainly don't support the theory that suggest Crosby gets special treatment as the best player in the game.
After that game, his father, Troy, told his son how proud he was that he didn't retaliate. Crosby simply just kept on pressing. It took another five periods of hockey to get the breakthrough but eventually it happened.
"He took a lot of abuse in Ottawa," Troy Crosby said after his son had helped lead the Penguins to another Stanley Cup finals. "I told him, 'You know what? You played a great game, stayed focused. Keep doing the same thing next game and things will be different.'"
Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Sidney Crosby #87 and Ian Cole #28 after scoring a goal agianst Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators in the second overtime with a score of 3 to 2 in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Now, Crosby and the Penguins are in position to win their third Stanley Cup with this core group of players, with only the talented Nashville Predators as the last hurdle. These Stanley Cup finals are an opportunity for the Penguins to stake their claim as the best team of this era. Four more wins and the Penguins pull even with the Chicago Blackhawks and their three rings under the leadership of captain Jonathan Toews.
But the Blackhawks never went back-to-back.
Sidney Crosby is already as driven a competitor as there is in the sport. Does putting the Penguins above other teams in this era drive him even more?
His dad would only say he sees a real hunger in his son. He wasn't tipping off what ignites it most.
Everyone in the building saw it from the start in Game 7. There was an extra jump in Crosby's game, as there was in a number of Penguins. They seize opportunity as well as any group in the game and they did it once again.
The first emotion that washed over Crosby when Kunitz's shot went in wasn't elation. It was relief. All this effort, doing all the right things with a blind faith that the payoff would eventually come, led to relief.
"It's just one of those games when the stakes are this high, anything can happen, so it's relief," Crosby said.
Relief eventually made way for excitement. The realization set in that the Penguins are playing for another Stanley Cup, their resiliency rewarded with one last opportunity.
"This group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I've been around," said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. "They understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn't come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity."