NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A lucky whistle, a lucky goal and a whole lot of championship mettle.
That's what got the Pittsburgh Penguins over the top Sunday night. The NHL has its first repeat champion in 19 years after the Pens' 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in Bridgestone Arena.
It's three Stanley Cups for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and back-to-back Conn Smythe trophies for Crosby. Three Cups for Marc-Andre Fluery and the injured Kris Letang too. It's two in two years for coach Mike Sullivan and still-rookie goalie Matt Murray -- who closed the series with back-to-back shutouts after getting blitzed here in Games Three and Four.
Crosby took the Cup once again from Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL's 100th anniversary season was over, with the Pens matching the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings for winning back-to-back Cups.
The finale was a taut thriller that was scoreless for more than 58 minutes.
The scoreless tie was broken on a fluke goal, a cheapie as far as winning a Cup goes. Former Predator Patric Hornqvist did the honors with 1:35 to go, taking a loose puck off the back boards and bouncing it home off Pekka Rinne's glove.
Justin Schultz took the shot from the blueline and it was wide of the net. But Rinne, in a fatal mistake, first looked to his right to find the puck. It was to his left. Hornqvist found it first and tapped it in.
Carl Hagelin's empty net goal with 13.6 seconds left got the celebration going in earnest on the Pittsburgh bench -- and drew a shower of debris from Nashville fans, who saw their team go 0 for 4 on the power play and lose what looked like the first goal early in the second period.
Philip Forsberg's shot was deflected by Murray and dribbled in the crease, with a diving Colton Sissons poking it home for an apparent 1-0 lead just 67 seconds into the middle frame.
But noooooooo. Referee Kevin Pollock lost sight of the puck and blew a ridiculously quick whistle, apparently thinking the puck was under Murray. It wasn't. It was sitting untouched in the goal crease in full view of 17,000 people. And probably millions more on television. But none of them count.
The officials huddled and ruled the whistle, however ill-advised, ended play and there was no goal. The crowd was incensed and Preds coach Peter Laviolette was wild, coming to the front of the bench to demand an explanation.
It was a terrible misstep in a key spot by an official. Another reporter on Twitter -- apology for the lack of credit because I can't remember who -- called it Pollock's "Donn Denkinger" moment after the umpire whose blown call in the ninth inning of Game Six turned the 1985 World Series in favor of the Kansas City Royals.
Strangely enough, I saw almost exactly the same play in the Sabres' overtime loss in Calgary back in October. A puck leaked through Robin Lehner, who was prone on his back, and was sitting in the crease. Flames winger Michal Frolik tapped it in but the play was wiped out. Or so we thought.
The officials went to the glass and huddled, just like they did Sunday night. But the inadvertant whistle was overturned and the goal was counted, just one of several calls that drove former Sabres General Manager Tim Murray crazy that night.
There was no such overrule in this case. The Predators' apparent 1-0 lead was gone.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) June 12, 2017
Now, a couple of points here. We worry about toenails and have made offsides about the most important rule in the sport but we can't review this situation? By the rules, it's not reviewable. Fair enough. And that would certainly cause chaos trying to figure out when the whistle blew.
Secondly, most officials would tell you that the play Sunday night was ruled correctly. That a whistle means the end of the action, no matter if it was supposed to be used or not. Most people would tell you it was the Calgary goal that was handled incorrectly and not what transpired here Sunday.
Sissons was easily the most snakebit guy in the building. He had a clear goal wiped out, was stoned by Murray on a breakaway and hit the post on a third-period chance.
It was certainly good to have some tension in the series for the first time since Game One. And the noise in the building clearly dropped as the game wore on, with the party atmosphere replaced by the hold-their-breath emotions of the crowd.
Things were wild again during the afternoon as folks poured into downtown for both the game and the final day of the CMAFest for country music. NHL officials said around 100,000 people were expected, with at least 60,000 of those heading to a concert in Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
The festive atmosphere was certainly reminiscent of what we saw here for Games Three and Four. The hockey was not.
The Predators rolled in front of their home fans in those two contests as they outscored the Penguins, 9-2, and got the series even after dropping the first two games. The building was Party Central and the party spilled on to Broadway outside, lasting into the wee hours of the morning.
Still, it was hard to ignore the Penguins' history of Cup clinchers. They had won all four of their previous Cups on the road. The games were won in 1991 in Minnesota (8-0), 1992 in Chicago against a young Dominik Hasek (6-5), 2009 in Detroit under Dan Bylsma (2-1) and 2016 in San Jose (3-1).
You had to wonder if fate was going to spin the Penguins' way again. They were impressive, both at practice Saturday and following the morning skate Sunday, in keeping an even keel. Too much experience in this lineup.
"It's important that we stay in the moment," Sullivan said prior to the game. "We can't get ahead of ourselves. I believe that we have a mature group, and we have great leadership and we trust our leadership, that these guys understand it.They've been here before. They know what it's about. They also understand that nothing has been accomplished."
"It doesn't get any more exciting. You're kidding yourself if you think otherwise," said 40-year-old Matt Cullen, who could head into retirement with two Cups. "The finish line is right there."
The Penguins crossed it again Sunday night.