For every hockey player, the Stanley Cup symbolizes the pinnacle of excellence and achievement. For each competitor fortunate enough to win the trophy, however, doing so takes on a unique, personal significance.
Last year, Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley won it all for the first time while his mother, Trudy, was dying of cancer. He was the first player to receive the trophy from captain Sidney Crosby during the Penguins' on-ice celebration.
This year, the Cup could serve as a hefty milestone for several other Penguins.
Already cemented as a future Hall of Famer, Crosby now seeks to distinguish himself as the most decorated player of his era and establish his position among the greatest competitors in hockey history. He has won gold medals at the world junior championship and world championship, as well as winning Olympic gold twice. His third Stanley Cup would draw him even with prominent contemporaries such as Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane. A third Cup could be another exhibit in his case for being the most revered player of his generation. Crosby answered his critics by setting the pace and contributing a trio of assists in Game 5. He won his first Conn Smythe Trophy last season and might add another even after playing through injuries this postseason.
Malkin also has an opportunity to add to his legacy. Much like Sergei Fedorov and Peter Forsberg, the center has been a top-percentile player in the NHL who has not enjoyed top billing at his position -- or on his own team. Yet Malkin's accomplishments have been formidable, including two scoring titles and a multitude of medals in international play, and the 30-year-old is on a clear trajectory toward the Hall of Fame. As the leading playoff scorer, Malkin also has an excellent chance to win his second Conn Smythe Trophy and solidify his position among the best players in NHL history and amid the Russian greats. His third Cup would tie Malkin with Detroit Red Wings forwards Fedorov and Igor Larionov and New Jersey Devils forward Sergei Brylin for the most by a Russian.
Every team has first-time Cup winners -- but, at 36, Hainsey had never even played in a playoff game before this spring. In stints with the Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes, Hainsey's teams never qualified for the postseason. He was dealt to Pittsburgh in late February as an insurance policy, and, with the blue line ravaged by injuries, the Penguins have depended on him. He has averaged more than 21 minutes per game, providing steady, rugged play with blue-line partner Brian Dumoulin. In Game 5, Hainsey busted out with a goal and an assist, his first career multipoint playoff performance. Since he has more than paid his dues in blood, tears and sweat, Hainsey might clasp the Cup more tightly and caress it more tenderly than any other Penguin.
Guentzel played only 40 regular-season games and would not have been a popular "highest scorer" pick in many postseason pools at the outset of the playoffs. Yet, heading into Game 6, his 13 goals leads all scorers and he is one shy of Dino Ciccarelli's rookie record for a postseason. Guentzel is asserting himself at the most opportune time, which could earn him plenty of responsibility, notoriety and cash in his next contract. Not only would he win the Cup on his first try, but he would do so as a huge contributor who has swiftly leapt from the periphery to the core of one of the league's top franchises.
For Kunitz, this Cup victory would be his fourth, surpassing all other active players. He hoisted the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, with Pittsburgh in 2009 and again with the Penguins last season. His teams have never lost a final series. He also rode shotgun with Crosby, then his linemate, on the way to Olympic gold with Team Canada in 2014. Now more of a role player, the alternate captain's experience has been an asset -- and he has contributed timely goals. Kunitz bookended Pittsburgh's Game 7 victory over the Ottawa Senators in the conference finals by opening the scoring and rifling in the series-winning goal in overtime. Although he is perhaps not the marquee name some of his teammates have been, Kunitz has been a complete player, a consummate professional, a quintessential teammate and, above all, a winner.