Penguins top Lightning in Game 7 to make Stanley Cup Final
It'll be the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Pens punched their ticket with a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday. It'll be their first chance at the chalice since they last won in 2009.
Pittsburgh dominated possession, outshooting the Bolts 39-17, but the game played out with all the tension of overtime from the opening puck drop.
Bryan Rust scored twice in the second period to provide the Pens with the edge, becoming the eighth rookie to net a pair in a Game 7, and just the fourth Penguin to accomplish the feat. The winger now has five goals in the postseason, the most by a Pittsburgh rookie since 1970.
Jonathan Drouin, with a spectacular individual effort, replied for the Lightning.
Steven Stamkos made a dramatic and unexpected return to the lineup eight weeks after undergoing surgery to address a blood clot issue, but the Lightning captain wasn't able to lift his team to victory. He finished with two shots on net, including one Grade-A scoring chance in the second period when he snuck in alone behind the Pittsburgh defense, but goalie Matt Murray got just enough of it to ruin the storybook moment.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is set for Monday night in Pittsburgh.
Here are some quick thoughts on this white-knuckle thriller:
When Rust drifted a shot that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy high glove side at 1:55 of the second period to open the scoring, it looked to be the biggest goal of his career.
It wasn't even his biggest of the period.
Just 30 seconds after Drouin had tied the game, Rust was Johnny-on-the-spot for the game-winner. He pounced on a puck that caromed off the back boards, jamming it short side before the Lightning goaltender could corral it.
Not the prettiest way to end the series, but Rust and the Penguins will take it.
Tweet of the Night
The captain makes his return.
GIF of the Night
Sidney Crosby has the best backhander in the league, but Vasilevskiy countered this attempt with focus and a textbook leg extension.
Notable Number: 91
For a series that ultimately was decided by a single goal, this wasn't really close. The Pens outshot the Lightning 269-178 over the course of the series, or an average of 13 shots per game. That speaks to both the dominance of Pittsburgh's forwards over Tampa Bay’s defense, as well as the brilliance of Vasilevskiy, who was pressed into action by the injury of Ben Bishop early in Game 1. Hard to imagine the Vezina finalist having played any better than the kid.
What It Means
Looking back at this team in December, it would have been impossible to picture the Penguins in the Final. That team was sluggish and unfocused, a total far less than the sum of its parts. And then Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston behind the bench. Suddenly freed to play to their strengths, the Penguins took on an entirely new personality. They were fast and aggressive, always pursuing the puck instead of collapsing on defense.
And while stars like Crosby and Kris Letang were reborn under the new system, it was Sullivan's willingness to lean hard on the kids he'd coached while in the AHL (Murray, Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnackl) that changed everything by addressing the team's enduring problem: a lack of depth.
"Those guys were huge," Sullivan said after the victory. "One of the things I really loved about this game was it took every single man in the lineup to win, and everybody made a significant contribution. And I couldn't be happier for this group of players. I think that the young kids are bringing the energy and enthusiasm. The veteran guys have been great mentors for these kids, and I think that's why we have the dynamic we have."
They'll likely enter the Final as the underdog, but the Sharks can't afford to take them lightly.
"They play D well," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "They play hard. And the other thing is they block a lot of shots. That was evident this whole series. The amount of shot blocks were just incredible, [we] just couldn't get them through. When you're one-and-done all the time because the shot is blocked and bouncing out of the zone or they're getting to a rebound, it's tough to generate offense."
As for Cooper's club, this was a potential franchise changer. Stamkos will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and this could have been his last game with the team that drafted him with the top pick back in 2008.
His post-game comments though hinted at a possible return next season.
“[I'm] extremely proud," he said of the efforts of his teammates to extend the series as far as they did. "It was special for me to get back on the ice with these guys. With this group. Such a tight group … a team that has gone through a lot this year.
“It just didn’t happen tonight. These are usually the kind of moments when things go well because of the things that you endure as a group. But for whatever reason, we’re going to have to learn from this and come back stronger.”
That last sentence will be parsed endlessly, at least until his decision is made. Does it mean what it sounds like it means? Maybe not, but it's at least enough to make this a glass half-full kind of night for Lightning fans.