Pittsburgh — The hours before the biggest game of Bryan Rust’s life were restless. The nap he tried to sneak in never materialized. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward’s mind was simply too busy.
“I was just sitting up there looking at the ceiling,” Rust said.
Yet even those daydreams didn’t compare to the reality: the rookie forward from Troy who began training camp hoping just to make the team scored both of Pittsburgh’s goals in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh will host Western Conference champion San Jose in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.
In a building littered with stars, it was the relentlessness of the 24-year-old Rust and the steadiness of 22-year-old goaltender Matt Murray that provided the difference as the Penguins reached the final for the first time since 2009.
“I’m in that mode where I’m getting the bounces and the breaks right now,” Rust said.
Ones Rust and his teammates are earning. The Penguins rallied from a 3-2 deficit by controlling the final two games of the best-of-seven series, winning 5-2 in Tampa Bay in Game 6, then backing it up with what coach Mike Sullivan said “might have been the most complete 60-minute effort we had.”
In disarray in December when Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston, the Penguins have sprinted through April and May and will head into June with a chance to win the franchise’s fourth Cup, one that would serve as a bookend to its last triumph seven years ago when stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still in their early 20s.
They’re older now. Wiser. And undaunted by a series of postseason failures that made it seem the window of their primes were closing. Yet here they are after dispatching the New York Rangers in five games, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six and the defending Eastern Conference champion Lightning in seven.
“They played better hockey than us the whole series,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who lost a Game 7 for the first time after starting his career 7-0 when pushed to the limit.
Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs for the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves, but it wasn’t enough to send Tampa Bay back to the Cup Final for a second straight year. Captain Steven Stamkos had two shots in 11:55 in his return from a two-month layoff while dealing with blood clots, his best chance coming on a breakaway in the second period that deflected off Murray and trickled wide. One of Murray’s teammates deftly guided the puck out of harm’s way, emblematic of Tampa Bay’s inability to keep the puck in Pittsburgh’s end with any sort of consistency.
“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos said. “It just went through him and out the other side. It was close, but we didn’t generate enough offensively in order to win a game.”
Mostly because the Penguins didn’t let them. It’s part of what Sullivan calls “playing the right way,” a way abetted by the influx of speed brought in by general manager Jim Rutherford. That group includes Rust, who forced his way onto the roster thanks to feverish skating and a self-confidence that belies his nondescript 5-foot-11 frame.
That effort — or “desperation level” as Crosby calls it — provided the Penguins with the boost they needed to overcome a bit of unfortunate history and the return of Stamkos. Pittsburgh had dropped five straight Game 7s at home, including a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in 2011 in a series Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed due to injury.
That loss had become symbolic of the franchise’s postseason shortcomings following that gritty run to the Cup in 2009 that culminated with a Game 7 win in Detroit that was supposed to be the launching pad of a dynasty.
Seven long years later, with an entirely new cast around mainstays Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have returned to the league’s biggest stage.
“We’ve always believed in one another,” Crosby said. “Trying to get back, it’s not easy.”
Not by a long shot.
Vasilevskiy, a revelation while filling in for injured Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, spent most of the night facing barrage after barrage as Pittsburgh controlled the puck and the pace of play for long stretches.
The Penguins finally broke through behind Rust, who managed all of five goals in 55 regular-season games, a total he’s matched in just 17 games during the postseason. He gave the Penguins the lead 1:55 into the second when he raced down the slot, took a feed from Kunitz and beat Vasilevskiy over his glove.
Drouin’s fourth goal of the series tied it at 9:36 of the second, a wicked wrist shot from the circle that zipped by Murray and seemed to blunt Pittsburgh’s momentum.
Only it didn’t.
All of 30 seconds later, the Penguins were back in front. Ben Lovejoy’s slap shot from the point caromed off the end boards to the right of the net. Rust jabbed at it, squeezing it between Vasilevskiy’s left arm and his body.
Their season on the brink, the Lightning recovered but Murray never wavered. His teammates in front of him kept Tampa Bay from getting in his way and when the final horn blared, Pittsburgh’s metamorphosis was complete.
“The biggest challenge is ahead of us,” Crosby said. “We have to finish it off the right way.”