PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins kept getting by even as their star players kept skating off the ice in pain. Even as the targets on their back as Stanley Cup champions kept getting bigger. Even as Columbus and Washington and Ottawa kept pushing and prodding, poking and pinching.
"Just play," coach Mike Sullivan kept telling his players. Over and over and over again.
So the Penguins did. And the team that found itself uncharacteristically on its heels for long stretches as it fended off the Blue Jackets in the first round, shut down the Capitals in the second and outlasted blue-collar Senators in the third is back where it was a year ago: heading to the Stanley Cup Final with confidence, momentum and more than a little bit of swagger.
Next up: "Smashville."
Pittsburgh earned a return trip to the Cup with a thrilling 3-2 double-overtime victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday. Chris Kunitz provided the winner, a knuckler from just outside the circle that made its way past Craig Anderson 5:09 into the second extra period and moved the Penguins a step closer to becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat.
And here's the scary part: after a season pock-marked by the loss of do-everything defenseman Kris Letang and significant absences by Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kunitz, goaltender Matt Murray and a host of others, the Penguins are starting to look like the team that picked apart San Jose last June to capture the franchise's fourth title.
"Our last four games in this series for me, we really found our game," Sullivan said.
The result is a potentially intriguing final between NHL royalty and the rowdy neighbors next door. The Penguins have the experience, the leadership and the star power. The Predators have defenseman P.K. Subban, a bunch of country music A-listers in the stands and absolutely nothing to lose in their first appearance on hockey's biggest stage.
Game 1 is scheduled Monday night in Pittsburgh. The teams split their two meetings during the regular season, with each winning on home ice, with Nashville overwhelming Pittsburgh 5-1 back in November and the Penguins returning the favor with a 4-2 victory in January.
Don't let the flimsy resume fool you. Though they tied for the fewest points in the 16-team playoff field (94), the Predators are dangerous and very much for real after steamrolling through the Western Conference playoffs, never trailing at any point in series wins over Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim.
"We haven't dominated the play that maybe we wanted to," Kunitz said. "Maybe we've done a better job these last couple of games. But it's something we're going to have to get better at playing a 60-minute game if we're going to have a chance to beat Nashville."
The meeting marks the first time in NHL history the coaches of both teams are Americans. Nashville's Peter Laviolette first turned a team in the deep south into a champion 11 years ago when he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to their first and only Cup. Sullivan took over in Pittsburgh in Dec. 2015 and provided the edge the Penguins so desperately needed, becoming the sixth U.S.-born coach to win it all.
Their teams in some ways have become reflections of them. The Predators aren't nicknamed "Smashville" just for kicks. They were the last team to qualify for the playoffs but have caught fire in the last six weeks, sweeping Chicago in the first round then proving it wasn't a fluke by putting away the Blues and the Ducks.
"It should be some exciting hockey as far as back and forth and fast and physical," Crosby said. "I think both teams like to play a pretty similar style."
With a handful of familiar faces on both sides. One of Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford's first moves when he was hired in 2014 was to trade forward James Neal to the Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. It's worked out for nearly all involved.
Hornqvist's relentless energy and penchant for crashing the net is invaluable when teamed with Malkin or Crosby, while Neal has given Nashville one of the more lethal shots in the league.
Yet it was Subban's arrival in a trade last June that provided Nashville with the grit and leadership it so desperately needed. Subban has been spectacular at times during the playoffs and goaltender Pekka Rinne is playing the finest hockey of his career, helping stoke the passion of a fanbase that likes to sledgehammer beat-up cars in parking lots before games and throw catfish onto the ice during them.
The Penguins, by contrast, have been here. They've done this. Considering all they've gone through to get back, they have every intention of doing it again.
"The biggest step is ahead," Crosby said.
The last one, too.