If the Penguins hope to force Game 7, stopping Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov is task No. 1.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a Nikita Kucherov problem.
After keeping him in check for Games 1 and 2, the understated winger is slowly taking over the Eastern Conference Finals. Two assists in Game 3. Two more in Game 4. Two goals and an assist in Game 5.
If that trend continues in Game 6 (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS), the Penguins' next game will be the opener of the 2016-17 season.
It takes a team effort to get this far, but every team needs someone to lead the way. Kucherov has answered that call for Tampa Bay.
"He keeps climbing the ladder, and he keeps getting better," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the 23-year-old sniper.
Kucherov has scored 11 times in 15 games this postseason, second-most to San Jose's Joe Pavelski. But it's not just the "how many" that stands out. It's the "when." Seven of those goals have either tied the score or given his team a lead.
Cooper marveled at what he called the timeliness of Kucherov's game.
"He's not scoring one goal in a 6–1 loss or the sixth goal in a 6–1 win," Cooper said. "He's getting the [equalizer], the game winner. He sets up the biggest of the biggest goals, and that says a little bit about the type of player [he is]."
And he's miles ahead of the pack with his +17 rating.
"[He's] not just being responsible and scoring on one end," Cooper said. "[He's] being responsible on the other end too. I don't think guys like him get enough credit for how they play the whole ice, and he's a big time player for us.
"When you need him, he's the one, more often than not, that's there for you. I think that's the one thing that's remarkable about him."
Stopping Kucherov then is Job 1 for the Penguins on Tuesday night.
Here are four more points to ponder ahead of Game 6:
• Penguins coach Mike Sullivan made a potentially fatal mistake in tapping Marc-André Fleury to start Game 5. A totally defensible mistake—what coach wouldn't turn to his experienced, Cup-winning No. 1 goaltender if he was healthy?—but a mistake nonetheless.
Now Sullivan has a chance to fix it by returning to Matt Murray in a must-win Game 6.
"Matt Murray is our starting goaltender," Sullivan confirmed on Tuesday morning. "And the reason, just like we make all our lineup decisions, we try to put players on the ice that we think give us the best chance to win."
It seems like the obvious decision. Fleury allowed four goals on 25 shots in that 4–3 overtime loss and admitted after the game he didn't feel comfortable. That's not what a team wants to hear ahead of a game like this.
Murray's hardly a sure thing himself. His 3-3 mark in his past six games, along with a .892 save percentage, is a concern. But at this point that's not a deal breaker. The Pens made it this deep in the playoffs largely because of his steady play between the pipes. He's proved that he can finish a series. And he's shown he can bounce back from a loss.
Whatever happens, Sullivan made the call he had to make.
• A lot is expected of Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. He's relied on to play heavy, shutdown minutes against top competition and at the same time lead Pittsburgh's vaunted attack.
Typically, he's up to the challenge. In Game 5 though, it seemed to overwhelm him.
Maybe it's because he was also asked to take on part of the load left behind by injured teammate Trevor Daley. Maybe three rounds of constant attention from forecheckers is starting to wear him down. Or maybe it was just an off night.
Whatever the reason, Letang has to be better tonight. Or the Pens will be cleaning out their lockers tomorrow.
Letang was on the ice for all four goals against in the 4–3 loss. The problem was clear: A player who ranks among the league's best skaters spent most of the night standing still.
That's not to say that getting his feet moving solves all his problems, but it's a start. When Letang is going, either with or without the puck, he's force. He retrieves pucks and gets them turned around quickly. He joins the rush. He makes everything click. But if he's on his heels, it all grinds to a halt.
The Lightning will continue their ground assault on him tonight. How he responds could impact the outcome of this one.
• Sidney Crosby scored the winning goals in Games 2 and 3 against the Lightning. That's no small thing. But it's also feeling like ancient history after he spent most of Games 4 and 5 chasing the puck around his own end.
While players like Kucherov and Tyler Johnson are elevating their games as the series progresses, Crosby is becoming less of a factor. That's not the way it's supposed to work for a player who is largely regarded as the best in the world.
It hasn't helped that he's been saddled with a revolving cast of wingers whose skill sets do little to complement his own. And certainly the Bolts have done a good job of taking the puck off his stick by controlling it for long stretches themselves. But the Penguins have reached the no-excuse portion of the season. It's time for Crosby to make his mark.
The Pens are up against it tonight. Two wins from the Stanley Cup Final. One loss from the golf course. And if it ends up being the latter, no one's going to care how hard Crosby had it in this series. They'll just know that others rose to the occasion and he didn't.
• The Lightning understand the importance of taking care of business tonight. They were in this exact same spot last season and they wet the bed, losing 7–3 to the New York Rangers. They went on to win Game 7, but who knows what toll playing that extra game exacted and how it might have impacted their performance against the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final?
They don't want to make that mistake again.
"I think if there's one thing we have to have learned from last year is what happened in Game 6 in the Rangers series," Cooper said. "You can't sit here and dictate or guarantee what the result is going to be, but our mindset going into the game has got to be a heck of a lot different, and our group is well aware of that."
A win tonight will put the Lightning in the Cup final in just 16 games. That's the fastest path since the 2013 Bruins and it leaves them well rested compared to the combatants vying to come out of the West. But it will take a better effort than the one they offered in Game 5 to get it done.
"Sometimes the last game to finish everything off is the hardest," defenseman Andrei Sustr said. "I think, if we're going to play like we did in Game 4 (when the Lightning got out to a 4-0 lead), we're going to need to come out pretty strong and carry it through the whole game. That's going to be key for us too to be successful."
When the Lightning are going good, as on that night, it begins and ends with their forecheck. That means getting in fast and hard, and forcing turnovers. It also means a heavy diet of Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Cedric Paquette. If those three are getting name-checked early, the Bolts are on their way to the final.