ARIZONA COYOTES

Penguins’ repeat bid is top storyline of Stanley Cup Final

May 29, 2017, 8:36 AM
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby waves to the crowd while holding onto the Stanley Cup while ridi...
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby waves to the crowd while holding onto the Stanley Cup while riding along the victory parade route in Pittsburgh, Pa., Wednesday, June 15, 2016. The Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks on Sunday to win the NHL hockey championship. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Repeat champions are a dime a dozen in the NBA, but they have become the rarest of birds in the NHL. That is what makes the Pittsburgh Penguins’ quest for a second straight title so meaningful as they open the Stanley Cup Final on Monday against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

Since the NBA introduced a salary cap before the 1984-85 season, eight NBA teams have repeated as champs, with three of them winning the title three consecutive seasons. Cleveland has a chance to become the ninth repeat champ in the salary-cap era when it opens defense of its title against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

With fewer players on the playing surface, and those players logging heavier minutes than the NHL, the NBA’s superstars have a greater chance of impacting outcomes. That has lent an air of predictability to the NBA playoffs that the salary cap hasn’t been able to mitigate.

At the start of the season, almost every analyst predicted a Warriors-Cavaliers final, with San Antonio serving as a dark horse. That is exactly how the postseason played out, with the Spurs falling to Golden State in the Western Conference semifinals, and neither conference winner facing a serious challenge along its path.

By contrast, NHL teams regularly roll four forwards lines, six defensemen and a goalie, with the average minutes per game for top defensemen in the mid- to high-20s, while top forwards log anywhere from the low 20s to the high teens. More players impact outcomes, and when you can’t hang on to all them for cap-induced reasons, it is harder to sustain success.

Since the NHL adopted its salary cap for the 2004-05 season, no team has repeated as champ. The last NHL team to win back-to-back titles was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

Pittsburgh’s ability to add key pieces at reasonable prices — forwards Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin and defensemen Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley — has helped it sustain success and keep its team together for another Cup run.

The Penguins haven’t been without their challenges. Pittsburgh’s blue line has been decimated by injuries, and has played the entire postseason without it best player, Kris Letang. Several key forwards have been in and out of the lineup, and the Penguins also played the first two rounds without starting goaltender Matt Murray. Somehow, Pittsburgh managed to defeat the team with the league’s fourth-best record (Columbus) and the team with the league’s best record (Washington), before surviving Ottawa in the Eastern Conference Final with a 3-2, double-overtime, Game-7 win on Thursday.

“It’s been hard,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I give this group of players so much credit. They find ways to win, and we’re not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I’ve been around.”

Repeats are difficult in any sport. They are monumental achievements in the NHL, making Pittsburgh’s bid for a second straight Cup the top storyline of the 99th competition for the Stanley Cup.

COMPARING NBA & NHL REPEAT PERFORMANCES

 NBA (Salary cap introduced in 1984-85)

Repeat champs chance since advent of salary cap: 8

Los Angeles Lakers (’87, ’88)

Detroit Pistons (’89, ’90)

Chicago Bulls (’91, ’92, ’93)

Houston Rockets (’94, ’95)

Chicago Bulls (’96, ’97, ’98)

Los Angeles Lakers (’00, ’01, ’02)

Los Angeles Lakers (’09, ’10)

Miami Heat (’12, ’13)

NHL (Salary cap introduced in 2004-05)

Repeat champs chance since advent of salary cap: 0

Repeat champs chance since 1984-85 season: 3

Edmonton Oilers (’87, ’88)

Pittsburgh Penguins (1991, ’92)

Detroit Red Wings (’97, ’98)

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