Penguins back up words, force Game 7 vs. Lightning
TAMPA — On the eve of his 22nd birthday, Matt Murray helped make an honest man of Evgeni Malkin.
So, too, for that matter, did Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel and the rest of the stars of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who played like ones on the one night they needed to more than any other.
On Monday, with his team facing elimination by being down 3-2 in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Malkin had a Joe Namath-Mark Messier moment when he proclaimed the Penguins would be back in Pittsburgh for Game 7 on Thursday night.
“I believe in my team, I believe in myself,” Malkin said at the time.
After watching Pittsburgh’s big guns flex their muscles in Game 6 on Tuesday night at the Amalie Arena, they aren’t the only ones who should believe.
With Murray back between the pipes on his final day as a 21-year-old after sitting out Game 5 in favour of Marc-Andre Fleury, goals by Kessel, Letang and Crosby lifted the Penguins to a 3-0 lead en route to a 5-2 win, setting up a one-game showdown to represent the East in the Stanley Cup final.
“You go through different experiences and you realize how hard it is to get these types of opportunities,” Crosby said. “If anything, just have an appreciation of how hard it is to get to this point.
“As a group, we’ve been through a lot. We want to make the most of this opportunity.”
With no margin for error, the Penguins talked the talk. Then they went out and walked the walk.
And, finally, mercifully for coach Mike Sullivan, it was Pittsburgh’s marquee names who stole the show.
Crosby had a goal and assist, Kessel and Letang a goal each and Malkin an assist.
And then, of course, there was Murray, always unflappable, always calm, cool and collected.
After Fleury made his first start in 52 days Sunday and turned in a wobbly performance in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 overtime loss in Game 5, coach Mike Sullivan turned back to Murray, who entered the game with a 9-4 record in these 2016 playoffs.
The result was yet another victory for the rookie, whose benching one game earlier did not cause him to lose his focus.
“I couldn’t worry about it,” Murray said. “It’s just the cards that were dealt. I thought I handled it pretty well.
“I’m just staying in the moment.”
A moment that has resulted in a Game 7.
“Matt was huge for us there the last 10 minutes,” forward Patric Hornqvist said. “He’s 21 years old, but he plays like he’s 30.”
According to Crosby, Murray has the composure of a grizzled veteran, not a raw rookie.
“He’s just really confident,” Crosby said of Murray. “It doesn’t seem like anything phases him or surprises him. He’s handled each challenge like he’s way beyond his years so I think that he’s always shown confidence and poise. Those are the biggest things that stick out to me.”
Asked about Malkin’s vow Monday that the series would go back to the Steel City, Sullivan replied: “I think it’s tremendous to show faith in teammates. I think sometimes you guys put words in their mouth and turn things into something that it’s not.
“But I absolutely love the fact that they believe in their teammates, they believe in themselves and they believe that when they step on the ice each and every night that they are going to win.”
On Tuesday, they did just that. And now it’s on to Game 7.
“I feel good, but we’re not done yet,” said Hornqvist. “It’s one win and we have to get one more here, and that’s going to be the hardest one. I think the first two periods we were really good. We were skating, we were all over the puck. And then obviously in the third, that happens — we sit back a little bit and they have some really good players and they make plays.
“We had to find a way to win and that’s all that matters in the end.”
CHALLENGE PAYS OFF FOR PITTSBURGH
It was the moment that turned around a game.
And, possibly, a series.
Early on in Game 6 on Tuesday, the Lightning appeared as if it would have all the momentum when Jonathan Drouin opened the scoring. Or so they thought.
But a great decision by Pittsburgh’s Sullivan and his coaching staff to challenge the play led to it being overturned when Drouin was deemed to be offside on the play leading to the goal. Disaster averted.
“It maybe calmed the nerves a little,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said of the overturned goal after his team’s 5-2 victory, one that forced a Game 7 in Pittsburgh. “It got us a second chance, an extra life to just go back and kind of regroup.”