Five Penguins players you just can’t hate

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June 14, 2017 by marlonpitter

Marc-Andre Fleury, who played in 15 of the Penguins’ 25-game Stanley Cup run, signs a young fan’s hat at the championship parade Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Written by Marlon Pitter

The Pittsburgh Penguins, seemingly Public Enemy No. 1 of fans around the league, celebrated winning their second consecutive and fifth overall Stanley Cup title Wednesday with a parade through the streets of the Steel City.

Although the team and many of its stars are some of the most disliked around the league (and hockey Twitter), the Penguins have a few individuals you simply can’t help but respect and be happy for this spring.

Ron Hainsey

This Bolton, Conn. native went year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year without making the playoffs in his 14-year NHL journey. Hainsey played 907 regular season games before making a playoff appearance, including two seasons where he played in all 82 games.

He’s manned the blue line for Montreal Canadiens – where he was a first-round draft pick in 2000 – Columbus Blue Jackets (now a good 2000 expansion team), Atlanta Thrashers (RIP), Winnipeg Jets (welcome back) and Carolina Hurricanes (formerly Hartford Whalers and people are still mad about it) before finally hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup with the Penguins this week.

Lest we forget he played his college hockey at UMass Lowell, where he played two seasons for the River Hawks from 1999-2001.

His minutes were critical in relief of the injured Kris Letang, a defenseman the Penguins sorely missed at times. Hainsey spent just over 21 minutes on ice per game and tallied two goals – including one in the 6-0 rout of the Predators in game five of the Cup Final – and eight total points these playoffs.

While he doesn’t have the offensive skill of the Letang, his part in the team effort to replace the team’s top D-man cannot go unnoticed.

Chris Kunitz

Kunitz earned himself his league-leading fourth Stanley Cup this week with the Pens, but that’s not the only reason to love this man.

The Ferris State alum only scored two goals and nine assists this spring, but no point was more clutch than his double overtime goal in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final to send the Pens to the final over the Ottawa Senators.

A typical grinder, Kunitz has adjusted to the Matt Cullen (third) line with Bryan Rust, allowing young guns Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel to flourish with Sidney Crosby on the top line.

At age 37, he hasn’t lost his touch, but retirement could come knocking this summer. If there’s one way to go out, it’s on top.

Scott Wilson

Here we are with another River Hawk, and he’s much more recent. In fact, he was on UMass Lowell’s first-ever Hockey East Championship teams in 2012-13 and 2013-14 before the Penguins asked him to sign on the dotted line.

Scottie – or Big Red if you’ve seen his playoff beard – put up impressive numbers in his three years in Lowell (2011-14), earning himself a sport on the All-Hockey East rookie team in 2012 and Hockey East All-Tournament Team in 2013.

His 2015-16 campaign with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton impressed the folks in Pittsburgh as he scored 36 points (22g, 14a) in 34 AHL games that year, earning a call up the NHL. He suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out of the playoffs after 24 games in Pittsburgh, however.

This year was different. He played in 20 of the Pens’ 25 playoff games, totaling only six points (3g, 3a), but his physical play complimented Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the second line. Wilson also earned many a shoutout to his alma mater from Pierre McGuire on the NBC broadcasts of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Phil Kessel

Nice guy. Tries hard. Loves the game.

Those three sentences are all you need to hear to like Phil Kessel.

As the most famous of these five players, it’s hard to not pull for him coming from a market that berated him as if he could bring Toronto a title on his own (see LeBron James’s entire career).

Phil “the Thrill” Kessel has been a successful player with the Bruins and Leafs, but being traded to the Penguins in the summer of 2015, he is now a TWO-time Stanley Cup champion.

He’s been the scoring threat (and promise) that the organization expected. Over the last two postseasons, Kessel has totaled 45 points – just behind Crosby and Malkin each with 46 points. Kessel has found a way to light the lamp with 18 goals, more than Malkin’s 16 and Crosby’s 14 in that time frame.

Matt Cullen

We, Pens fans, affectionately call Cullen “Dad,” and at 40 years young, he’s certainly old enough to have fathered anyone here at The Nosebleeds.

Cullen – another NCAA alum at St. Cloud State, one of a record 15 on the Cup-winning Pens – has been an integral part of the third line for the team all spring. His most notable contribution on the stat sheet has been winning faceoffs, something the team seemed unable to do no matter the opponent, but there has to be a sense of leadership that comes with playing in the NHL since 1997-98.

Cullen has talked about this season and this postseason run as possibly being his last, so if it’s time to hang up his cleats, back-to-back titles would be the way to do it.

Cullen has three biological sons, but he’s a father to all Penguins fans this spring. I hope we get him his Stanley Cup ring by Sunday.

(Very) honorable mention: Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury has been the epitome of a grace amid a 14-plus-month goalie controversy involving himself and 23-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

Murray started the postseason in net last year while Fleury was injured and earned 15 of the team’s 16 wins en route to the Stanley Cup. This time around, Fleury started in net while Murray was hurt and was outstanding compared to prior playoffs runs of his, including a 2-0 road shutout of the Washington Capitals in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (or whatever they call the second round in the new playoff format).

After the first period of game three in the Eastern Conference Final, however, head coach Mike Sullivan had to pull the trigger and go with Murray the rest of the way. In reality, both netminders gave the Penguins extraordinary chances to win, but Murray is just a tad better at this point and will be moving forward. Not once did Fleury complain about the situation.

With the confetti fallen and the offseason essentially underway, talks of Fleury going to the Las Vegas Golden Knights are rampant. The 32-year-old veteran has waived his no-trade clause, leaving options open for general manager Jim Rutherford to make a move involving him.

Fleury has served the team proudly and carved a niche for himself as a fan favorite and core member of a three-Cup Penguin crew with Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Kunitz throughout his 13 years in the organization. If this was Fleury’s last rodeo in Pittsburgh, then I’m sure many fans would agree that it was a marvelous one.

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