Penguins force Game 7 with 5-2 victory
Tampa, Fla. — The Pittsburgh Penguins made good on Evgeni Malkin’s pledge to force Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.
Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist, and Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored Tuesday night in a 5-2 victory that evened the best-of-seven series with the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-3.
Game 7 is Thursday night, with the Penguins hoping to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 and the Lightning looking to advance to the Cup Final for the second straight year.
“I just told them to embrace the moment. It’s a great opportunity for us. These are the type of circumstances to where you have an opportunity to write your own story,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.
“They had a certain mindset going into this tonight: ‘We’re going to leave it all out there and do everything we can to bring this back to Pittsburgh,’” Sullivan added. “And, certainly that’s what they did.”
Malkin was the most demonstrative of the players expressing confidence the Penguins could take the series back to Pittsburgh, saying he believed in himself, his teammates and that they could return home for a seventh game “for sure.”
Crosby stepped up with his third game-winning goal of the series. The Penguins captain assisted on Kessel’s 5-on-3 power-play goal in the opening period and later skated around Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman into the clear before sending a wrist shot between goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s legs for a 3-0 lead in the final minute of the second period.
“We know the circumstances. It makes you go out there with a mindset of playing desperate,” Crosby said. “I think we had confidence in the whole group. I think everyone played great.
“Everyone contributed in their own way. In a big game like this you, don’t do anything special, just do your job. I think that’s gotten us this far.”
Rookie goaltender Matt Murray returned to the lineup after being replaced as the starter for Game 5 by Marc-Andre Fleury, but his 10th playoff victory did not come without a bit of suspense.
Brian Boyle scored twice in the third period for Tampa Bay, with one of the goals bouncing off Kessel before getting past Murray, who finished with 28 saves. The second score drew the Lightning within one goal with 7:17 remaining.
Instead of flinching, the young goalie who turns 22 on Wednesday retained his composure down the stretch to help the Penguins avoid relinquishing a third-period lead for the second straight game.
“I just think it’s part of his DNA. He has a calming influence. He doesn’t get rattled if he lets a goal in. He continues to compete,” Sullivan said.
“That’s usually an attribute that takes years to acquire. And to have it at such a young age is impressive. I think one of his biggest strengths is just his ability to stay in the moment.”
Rust’s breakaway goal at 17:52 of the third gave Pittsburgh breathing room, and Bonino added an empty-netter to finish it off.
“We had a great chance tonight and just tip-toed around a little bit,” Boyle said. “We were tentative and weren’t aggressive.”
Kessel’s goal was his team-leading ninth of the playoffs. Crosby had the primary assist, his first point since delivering game-winners in Games 2 and 3, and Malkin also had an assist to extend his point streak to four games after a slow start in the series.
The Lightning had an apparent goal by Jonathan Drouin waived off a little more than five minutes into the game, when Sullivan successfully challenged that the young Tampa Bay winger was offside on the play before tapping in a rebound off Ondrej Palat’s shot that bounced off Murray’s pads.
Sullivan announced the decision to go back to Murray following Tuesday’s morning skate.
Murray started the first four games of the series. Fleury replaced him during the third period of Game 4, then made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, which Tampa Bay won 4-3 in overtime.
Before Game 5, Fleury had not started a game since March 31, when he suffered a concussion.
Tampa Bay entered the game determined to not come out flat in Game 6 of the conference final for the second straight year.
The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to go up 3-2 in that series, but were badly outplayed at home the next game and had to return to Madison Square Garden to finish the series.
Now, they’ll have to win on the road again to make the third Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history.
“I know we can. I’ve got confidence in this group. We believe we can do that,” Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan said. “We’ve had success on the road in the playoffs. We’ve had success in their building already. It’s going to be a good one.”