It’s going to take seven games to decide the NHL's Eastern Conference champion.
The Pittsburgh Penguins pushed the series to the limit with a decisive 5–2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 on Tuesday night.
Sidney Crosby scored his third game-winner of the series on a spectacular individual effort with 26 seconds remaining in the second period. Phil Kessel and Kris Letang also tallied to stake the Penguins to a 3–0 lead after 40 minutes.
The Lightning mounted a furious rally in the third, firing 19 shots at Matt Murray and getting a pair of goals from Brian Boyle to cut the lead to 3–2 before Pittsburgh's Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino salted it away late.
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Andrei Vasilevskiy made 29 saves in a losing effort for the Bolts.
Game 7 will be Thursday night in Pittsburgh (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).
Here are some quick takes on Game 6:
Under intense pressure to step up and lead the Penguins when they needed him most, Crosby came through with one of those only-Sid moments.
With the Pens holding a 2–0 lead and the clock winding down on the second period, Patric Hornqvist created a turnover in the neutral zone and quickly upped the puck to Crosby. The captain dropped his shoulder, hit the line and turned three Lightning defenders into blue pylons.
It felt like a coffin nail at the time, but it ended up being the margin of victory as the Bolts came back to score twice in the third.
After the game, Crosby tried to deflect credit for the play to his linemate.
"I just tried to get some speed off that turnover there that Horny made, and had a lane and just tried to hit it," Crosby said. "That's a great play by him. I mean, if he doesn't back-check, it's probably a nothing play, and they're going back the other way. But he gets that turnover and we kind of catch them in between there."
That's leadership for ya.
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The Bolts appeared to open the scoring 5:12 into the first when Jonathan Drouin pounced on a rebound and half-slapped it into a wide-open cage.
But the celebration was short-lived, because of this:
The Penguins challenged the goal, leading to a determination that Drouin’s own back foot caused the play to go offside. The call seemed to suck the life out of the Bolts, who ended up going nearly eight minutes before they counted their first official shot on net.
"I think it was a huge moment in the game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "Our video guy saw it. It was close, but he felt as though it was offside. It was a great call by him. If they get the first goal, it lights up the building, and all of a sudden, momentum gets difficult. I think, our team actually got a boost from it because we knew we had dodged a bullet there."
For what it's worth, the call on review was correct. It was also a reminder that the well-intentioned decision to extend video review to offside plays has turned into hot garbage.
Consider all the changes the league has made, and continues to make, in an effort to increase scoring. Then look at this rule. It's the ultimate buzzkill. At some point, maybe this summer, the league will recognize that it's best to let the linesmen do their job. If they miss the occasional hairline call, that's fine. The game will be better for it.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world:
Notable Number: 11
The Lightning came into this game with a chance to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, and they mustered a total of 11 shots through the first two periods. Eleven. Hard to understand how the Bolts came out that flat.
Take nothing away from the Pens. They executed a nearly flawless defensive game plan. But this contest was there for the taking. The Lightning were at home. they had momentum from a Game 5 victory in Pittsburgh. They were up against a 21-year-old rookie who had been benched on Sunday and was facing his first elimination game.
And they've been through a Game 6 meltdown before. For the past two days, they've talked about learning a lesson from that 7-3 loss to the New York Rangers, about how they weren't going to let this opportunity slip away.
And then they got outshot 14-4 in the first and were down 3-0 before they got their legs under them.
The Lightning let the Pens off the hook. And they got the result they deserved.
What It Means
It’s pretty obvious which team wanted this one more. The Lightning spent the first 40 minutes of Game 6 playing not to lose while the Pens brought the intensity you’d expect from a team desperate to avoid elimination. No surprise they emerged with a 3-0 lead. The tables turned in the third as the Bolts took advantage of the Penguins slipping into a defensive shell, but by that point it was too late.
Can Tampa Bay build on the momentum of that third-period surge? Maybe. It got its forecheck going and created some turnovers. The puck luck followed. That's the script that's worked for them three times in this series already. Execute one more time and they have a great chance to move on.
And remember, they came back from that Game 6 drubbing last year and won Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, 2-0. They don't have Ben Bishop this time around, but Vasilevskiy gives them a chance to win. They just have to want it more than the other guys.
The Pens have to like their chances, too. The big guns were firing tonight, although Evgeni Malkin had to settle for an assist rather than the goal he promised. And Murray made Sullivan look like a genius for giving him the start. He challenged Tampa’s shooters right from the opening draw, and played with a confidence that was leaking from his game earlier in the series. Murray also did a nice job cleaning up for his teammates in that scrambly third period.
Six games in, it's clear there's not much to separate these two teams. Who takes Game 7? It's a coin toss.