Penguins – Lightning
Who takes Game 7 Thursday night?
If the last two games are any indication, whichever teams’ best players are better could be a pretty good indicator.
Which ones will rise to the occasion is anyone’s guess.
In Game 5, Tampa Bay’s best players were superior and they got the ‘W’, while the likes of Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang had brutal games.
Nikita Kucherov 2 goals, assist, Tyler Johnson game winning goal, Alex Killorn a goal.
In Game 6, the script was flipped.
Sidney Crosby had the game winning goal and added an assist. Kris Letang after being a minus-4 in Game 5, had a goal and was a +2. Phil Kessel scored, Evgeni Malkin was even noticeable at times, while for Tampa Bay, Kucherov, Johnson and Killorn were pointless and a combined minus-8.
“When your top guys lead the charge, everyone else follows suit,” Mike Sullivan after the Penguins Game 6 win.
That’s been true and while Mike Sullivan always talks about rolling four lines and this being about all 18 skaters, it’s often always about the best players being the ones who sway an elimination game in one direction or the other.
Both conference finals games last season went to seven games, with both road teams winning. What did the winning teams have in common? Chicago’s best players outplayed Anaheim’s and Tampa Bay’s outplayed New York’s.
In the Blackhawks 5-2 win, Duncan Keith had 3 assists, Patrick Kane a goal and assist, Brandon Saad had two points (goal, assist), Marian Hossa scored a goal, while for Anaheim, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry were all pointless and a combined minus-8.
Sometimes a depth player sways a Game 7 like Max Talbot but more often than not it comes down to which best players outplay the others.
Another pretty good indicator for tonight could be which No. 1 defenseman has the more impactful game.
Game 5 Letang was a disaster with his angles and positioning, on the ice for all four goals against. Game 6 Victor Hedman had a similar type of performance, a minus-4 and a delay-of-game penalty that led to a Penguins’ 5-on-3 goal.
So yeah it’s almost always about the best players and likely will be tonight on who prevails in Game 7.
— The Penguins getting this to a Game 7 in the way they did with the stars stepping up, now has them in a situation where if they come up short tonight — there will disappointment compared to outrage if they would have lost Game 6 –.
Losing tonight would still be a missed opportunity though.
Tampa Bay without Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop this series was clearly the fourth best team left in the tournament and for the Penguins, who some regard as the Cup favorites (I think San José is the best team remaining), you don’t know when the opportunity will come next.
From winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Pittsburgh didn’t return to the Eastern Conference Finals until four seasons later in 2013. This season they returned for the first time in three years.
Evgeni Malkin will turn 30 this summer and we’re already seeing his best days might be behind him. A golden opportunity tonight for this core and the Penguins need to get the job done.
Might be a couple more years before an opportunity to get back to Cup Final comes again.
— Kris Letang’s second period goal in game 6 was a good illustration of why possession players are now the rage. On the goal Nick Bonino is late on his shift and gets the puck in the neutral zone and he’s basically 1-on-2. The natural instinct would be the dump the puck in and go change, instead Bonino shows patience and waits for the play to develop, gets the puck to Conor Sheary and then goes for his change.
The result is a zone entry by Sheary with the Penguins scoring seconds later.
— Something that might be flying under the radar has been a mini-resurgence from Chris Kuntz this series. Has points in four straight games, with 3 goals and 2 assists during that span. Difference for Kunitz, he’s getting high quality chances and getting a higher volume of pucks on net. In the first two rounds combined, Kunitz had 18 shots on goal in 11 games. In six games vs Tampa Bay he has 21 shots.
— Since returning to the lineup the last two games, Olli Maatta has had no ‘Olli Maatta type gaffes’ that end up with the puck in the back of the Penguins net. Bad news he’s probably due for one tonight.
— The positive impact of replay on potential off-sides goal has been significant for the Penguins this post-season. In Game 3 of Round 1, the Rangers struck first in the first period to take a 1-0 lead. The goal was overruled and called offside. Who knows how that one plays out if it’s not overruled.
In Game 6 vs the Lightning, Mike Sullivan admitted the Penguins dodged a bullet with Jonathan Drouin being called off-side. Patrick Hornqvist said today the Penguins might not be here today if that goal counted.
Andy Saucier has had a heck of a playoff run.
— Carl Hagelin is 6-1 all-time in Game 7’s. His only loss as a player coming last season in the Eastern Conference Finals vs the Lightning.
— One Eastern Conference NHL executive told me Wednesday Marc Andre Fleury’s performance in Game 5 will do more “harm” to his trade value in the long-run. Fair or not, Fleury still has this view about him outside of Pittsburgh from NHL personnel decision makers that he’s a fragile goaltender who gets rattled easily.
About that Matt Murray kid and his ability to handle pressure.
“I just think that’s part of his DNA,” Mike Sullivan said of Murray. “He has a calming influence. He doesn’t get rattled. If he lets a goal in, he just continues to compete. That’s usually an attribute that takes years to acquire. To have it at such a young age is impressive.”
— Regardless of whether the Penguins advance or not, the team is planning to conduct some preliminary pro scouting meetings next week to begin outlining an off-season plan for next season. Want the Full Story? Get "Inside Access"