Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Game 7 is only fitting for these Penguins

May 25, 2016

(Photo Credit: Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - MAY 24: Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal on Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa.
(Photo Credit: Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
TAMPA, Fla. — There was “The Save.” That was April 13, 1991.
About a year later, on April 29, 1992, there were those clutch couple of goals (and three assists) from The Captain.
And can it already have been seven years since June 9, 2009? “The Piece,” need I say any more?
Need I remind you what has happened every time the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup?
Here's a hint: It happened again Tuesday night.
The Penguins forced a Game 7. Then they went and won it.
These Penguins took care of the first part by taking apart the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena. It took a strong start and stronger finish, but a 5-2 victory evened the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals to set up the only just ending to an enthralling series.
Game 7.
The best words in sports.
And from Kris Letang's mouth to Pittsburghers' ears, this is how the Penguins need to play it Thursday night at Consol Energy Center: “Keep it simple.”
Letang has played in each of the Penguins' five Game 7s since their last successful Cup run. They took two on the road in 2009, and they've dropped three at home in 2010, '11 and '14.
In so many ways, this series is unlike any in which Letang has played. There is no rhyme or reason to how these six games have gone.
The Lightning took home ice from the Penguins by winning a Game 1 that was turned over to its 21-year-old goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Penguins took back home ice in Game 6 by turning back to their 21-year-old goalie, Matt Murray, who turns 22 on Wednesday.
If you're the gambling type, go with Murray.
Although, if you're the gambling type, you probably should go into hiding until the series is over. No lead is safe.
The Penguins nearly lost in the third period Tuesday night what the Lightning came close to giving away in the third period Friday night: the game.
But that nearly doesn't really matter when it comes to the only thing that does matter in the playoffs. And that would be the result.
Winger Bryan Rust, easily the Penguins' best forward in their Game 5 loss, guaranteed the Penguins would win Game 6 with his late third-period goal. It was set up by the Penguins' second best forward from Game 5 and easily their best of the series, Chris Kunitz.
Think about that for a minute.
Kunitz, given up on by most Penguins fans, and Rust, never really considered by many Penguins fans, are fanning the flames for the Penguins.
But centers Evgeni Malkin (a point in each of the past four games) and Sidney Crosby (a goal and an assist in Game 6) have never played fewer average minutes in a postseason series.
Oh, and franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been relegated to the role of backup for the second time in the postseason.
Somehow, however, the Penguins are in position to do what they've been unable to do for seven years.
They're one win from returning to the Cup Final. All they have to do is get the one win at home that has eluded them since the days Crosby and Malkin showed up to save the franchise.
Every great Penguins club has one thing in common. Forcing and then winning a Game 7.
Malkin, in his most defiant NHL moment, boldly said Monday that the Penguins were going to bring the East finals “back to Pittsburgh.”
He didn't need to say a word late Tuesday night.
His smile said it all.
Game on.
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

Penguins stars' play a reflection of Sullivan

By Chris Mueller
May 25, 2016
Crosby helps Penguins beat Lightning to force Game 7
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) watches as his shot heads into the net for a goal as Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), of Russia, is unable to defend, during the second period of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
The big picture stakes Tuesday in Tampa were obvious. It was win and come back home for an all-or-nothing Game 7, or lose and spend the off-season wondering. We know now that the Penguins won, primarily thanks to their big money players, with Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang all tallying goals. Evgeni Malkin racked up an assist and made a bunch of little plays to help carry the day for the Penguins.
A side storyline, though, revolved around Mike Sullivan. Would the Penguins’ coach, a man whose ability to get the best out a sometimes mercurial roster arguably was his best attribute during the regular season, be able to get a high-level performance out of his team when its back was against the wall for the first time all season?
The answer was a resounding yes.
The Penguins, who hadn’t won a game when facing elimination since 2012 against Philadelphia, delivered a sound, opportunistic performance. It was one in which they held Tampa Bay down offensively until some near-fatal hiccups in the third and found ways to crack the Lightning’s phenomenal goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Aside from a first-period retaliatory slash by Malkin, the Pens were disciplined. That was one thing that they had not been in pressure situations. They were steady and stuck to their game plan, for the most part. They waited for the opposition to make a mistake instead of handing the Lightning quality scoring chances on a silver platter. Most of all, though, the Penguins simply brought their “A” game for long enough to secure a win. That hasn’t happened in the past when there have been trying times.
Sullivan’s influence was most noticeable in the play of his stars. Fair or not, there were fans and media calling for Crosby and Malkin to do far more to help a winning effort. There were multiple different stats to help explain their relative ineptitude in elimination games of late. Plenty was made of the fact that Crosby, Malkin and Letang declined to speak to the media after Game 5. Letang was an atrocious minus-4 in that game, as well.
Things weren’t great for the highest-paid guys on the team. They could have folded, given the circumstances. They did not. When the Penguins did go into a “prevent defense” style shell and surrender two goals of a three-goal lead, Matt Murray, a man who often has played like a star in these playoffs, held the fort. Bryan Rust iced the game with a calm, cool and collected breakaway goal.
In getting his stars to bring it when everything was on the line, and in getting high-end work from several role players, Sullivan displayed what probably stands as the most important attribute for any successful pro coach: the ability to motivate, inspire and elicit the best possible performance out of paid professionals.
In high school and college sports, the coaches have all the power. Players not being paid means that they are subject to the whims of the coach. In professional sports, all but the absolute best coaches are beholden to star players. The dynamic is flipped on its head in the pros and many coaches, including ones throughout the Penguins’ history, have found themselves on the unemployment line because of clashes with star players.
This game, given the Penguins’ sordid recent history in do-or-die situations, was to be the biggest test of the new attitude Sullivan brought to the Penguins. With everything on the line, Sullivan and the stars passed with flying colors. Their reward? Game 7 at home, something that has been nothing short of torturous for the flightless birds for many years.
After watching Mike Sullivan’s Penguins do what they did Tuesday, I’m feeling pretty optimistic that this time around, they’ll write a much happier ending.

Game 6 failure could haunt Lightning in a big way

By Tom Jones
May 24, 2016

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) slow to get up as the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate the goal by center Sidney Crosby (87) in the final minute of the second period of game six of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. on Tuesday, May 24, 2016.

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) slow to get up as the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate the goal by center Sidney Crosby (87) in the final minute of the second period of game six of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. on Tuesday, May 24, 2016. DIRK SHADD | Times

TAMPA- Well, it's going to have to do it the hard way. Of course, it is. After all, that's how the Lightning does things. The hard way. It's never comfortable unless it's uncomfortable. It never plays its best until the circumstances are at its worst. And the Lightning's situation just got a whole lot worse. If the Lightning wants to take a second consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup final, it will first need to take an unexpected and dreaded detour. Tampa Bay is going to have to go to Pittsburgh and beat the Penguins on their home ice Thursday night. If it plays like it did in Tuesday night's 5-2 loss in Game 6, don't count on it. That do-or-die Game 7 is now necessary all because the Lightning couldn't seal the deal on its own ice Tuesday night. It's a loss that might keep the Lightning tossing and turning all summer long. And that summer could start as early as Thursday night if Tampa Bay can't muster a better performance than it did Tuesday.

"We got to be better than that," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said.
Call it flat. Call it uninspired. Call it what you will. But be sure you call it this: unacceptable. The Lightning lost Game 6 because it deserved to lose Game 6.
Yes, there was another team on the ice, a Penguins team loaded with talent, a Penguins team that played with determination and desperation as if its season was on the line. Which it was.
But that doesn't completely excuse a Lightning team that lacked the necessary urgency and energy to close out a series that was there for the taking.
Really, Lightning? That's all you have? That's the best you could do? A trip to the Stanley Cup was a mere 60 minutes away in the comforts of your own house and you played most of the night like it was a meaningless game in November, not an elimination game in May?
"They were a desperate hockey team and we didn't match that," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "We lose an opportunity there."
Tampa Bay had four shots on goal in the first period. It had 11 shots through two periods. It took dumb penalties. It rarely tested Pittsburgh's third-string kid goalie who was playing the most pressure-packed game of his life. The only way Tampa Bay could have made life easier on Matt Murray was to hand him a soft blanket, a pillow and a warm glass of milk.
Does that sound like a team that wanted to get back to the final? Is that a team willing to do whatever it takes to win hockey's holy grail?
"They played better than us," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "for two periods."
Those were the two that mattered. It wasn't until the third period, when the Penguins were up 3-0 and in cruise control, that the Lightning showed any life. By that time, it was way too late. Only when the game was lost and the pressure was gone did Tampa Bay put in the type of effort that it needed to win.
Look, it's not easy to criticize this bunch. The Lightning is missing MVP and goalie Ben Bishop. It has been without leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos for the entire playoffs. Without those two, no one gave Tampa Bay much of a chance to get even this far. It has overcome high hurdles and wide obstacles and more adversity than most teams can be expected to overcome.
But, see, that's the point. The Lightning has overcome all of those things. It has shown that it is capable of winning no matter who is missing and what is thrown at them. And that's what makes Tuesday night's effort all the more baffling and troubling. It had so much more to give. It would be a shame if this was the lasting memory for what very well could have been the game of the season at Amalie Arena.
"We have to understand that for 40 minutes, we (didn't play well enough)," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "It's disappointing. . . . We need to regroup. We should be angry about this one."
Does this mean the season is over? Of course not. Tampa Bay has a knack of following up soul-crushing losses with thrilling victories. In fact, we saw this movie a year ago. The Lightning looked like it blew the Eastern Conference final to the Rangers by losing Game 6 at home only to win Game 7 with a gutsy performance in New York. It will try to do that again.
"It's a Game 7," Boyle said. "It's a great opportunity.
But it will have to play much better than it did Tuesday night. Otherwise, this is a loss that will go down as one of the most depressing in franchise history.

Pittsburgh Penguins' superstars dominate Game 6 to push conference finals to the max

Scott BurnsideESPN Senior Writer 25, 2016

Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal with teammate Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87), during the first period of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
TAMPA, Fla. -- For 40 minutes of this Eastern Conference finals game, it didn't really matter who was in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins -- Matt Murray,Marc-Andre Fleury, Gilles Meloche or even Sidney Crosby's dad, Troy, who was in fact a fine goaltender back in the day.
That's how good the Penguins were in rolling up a 3-0 lead through two periods over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And then, when they needed him most, the young man who 48 hours earlier wasn't deemed to be good enough to be in the Penguins' goal, saved their season.
To say it has been a tumultuous few days for the Penguins is a colossal understatement.
But in the wake of their 5-2 win Tuesday night, rest assured the next 48 hours will bring less tumult but no shortage of drama as these two teams will play one final game Thursday night, with the winner going to the Stanley Cup finals.
"It's awesome," said veteran Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and has been chasing another ever since. "It doesn't get any better. I think we have a lot of guys in here that expect themselves to rise to the occasion, and guys that have won before, guys that have been there, guys that understand what it takes to win. I expect guys to rise up again."
There were so many storylines heading into Game 6 at Amalie Arena you could have collected them by the bushel basket.
Chief among them was the decision to start Murray after he'd been benched in favor of veteran Fleury in Game 5, which the Penguins lost in overtime 4-3. That loss was followed by a sort-of guarantee from Evgeni Malkin that the Penguins would indeed be heading home for a Game 7 on Thursday night.
The sort-of guarantee actually spoke more to the pressure that existed on the Penguins' stars to deliver the goods after a disappointing Game 5.
And they did just that.
Malkin, aside from a bad retaliation penalty in the first period, was excellent.
The Penguins were disciplined, taking only the one minor.
Kris Letang, a minus-4 in Game 5, scored the Penguins' second goal Tuesday, led all Penguins in ice time at 23:48 and was rarely out of position.
Crosby was a dynamo, pushing aside defenders and scoring on a virtuoso effort with 25.6 seconds left in the second period to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead through 40 minutes.
It would turn out to be the winner, the third for Crosby in this series.
The Penguins led in shot attempts 28-13 through two and, as they have for long periods of time in this series, looked to be the far superior team.
And then it became Murray's show as the Lightning dominated the third period, outshooting the Penguins 19-8. The Lightning scored twice: one was deflected by Phil Kessel into his own net and the other came after Cullen inadvertently screened Murray as Brian Boyle was shooting. But among Murray's 17 third-period saves, a handful were game-changers.
Or in this case, series-changers.
If the feeling in going to Fleury instead of Murray, now 10-4 with a .924 save percentage, was that he'd hit a wall or was starting to fade, or that Fleury was simply a better option, those feelings were shown Tuesday to have been wildly misguided.
On the eve of turning 22, Murray was matter of fact about his performance and the tumult of the previous few days.
The coach makes those decisions based on what he thinks will give the team the best chance to win, Murray said.
"It's not my job to worry about his decision," Murray said. "It's my job to be ready if my name is called, and if my name is called, to go out and play my heart out and compete."
Guess he was ready.
The Lightning came into this game talking about learning from history and then, at least for the first two periods, managed to simply repeat it.
A year ago they had a 3-2 series lead on the New York Rangers in the conference finals and got blown out at home before winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden 2-0.
Tuesday they had an early goal overturned on a coaches' challenge and never really got into any kind of groove until they were in an enormous hole.
"They played better than us for two periods," Tampa coach Jon Cooper said. "That was it. All their players pretty much played better than all our players for 40 minutes. All our players played probably better than them for 20 minutes. That's it.
"Give Pittsburgh a ton of credit for the way they played and how they handled things. They volleyed the ball into our court and now it's time for us to smash it back."
And so this series has been a virtual horn of plenty. We've had injuries and controversy. The Lightning have twice had leads in this series and twice the Penguins have erased those leads. Both teams have used two goalies. And now they will play one more game to decide it all.
"I think that you go through different experiences and you realize how hard it is to get these kinds of opportunities," Crosby said. "So, if anything, just having an appreciation for how hard it is to get to this point and as a group we've been through a lot and want to make the most of this opportunity."

Polanco drives in 5, Pirates crush Diamondbacks 12-1

By Will Graves
May 24, 2016

Miller drops to 1-6 as Diamondbacks fall to Pirates 12-1

Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco rounds first after hitting a three run home run off Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Shelby Miller during the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Thrust into the third spot in the lineup behind superstar teammate Andrew McCutchen earlier this month, Gregory Polanco knew it might take a while to get settled.

Pitching Details

Or maybe not.
The rapidly maturing Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder is so hot at the moment, even his mishits are finding the seats. Polanco crushed a three-run homer off struggling Shelby Miller in the first inning and finished with a career-best five RBIs as the Pirates rolled by the Arizona Diamondbacks 12-1 on Tuesday night.
''You know you're in the middle of the lineup,'' Polanco said. ''You're expected to hit. You're fighting every pitch, every at-bat.''
Polanco's shot to the concourse in right-center field off Miller (1-6) three batters in gave Pittsburgh an early boost, even if Polanco flung his bat in disgust figuring he'd just missed it. Instead, it cleared the seats for his sixth home run of the season.
''I thought I didn't get that one,'' Polanco said. ''I don't know but ... (it just) kept going.''
Polanco is hitting .317 (20 of 63) with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 15 games since manager Clint Hurdle elevated him to third in a lineup that is batting an impressive .283.
''You put good hitters at third,'' Hurdle said. ''It's been a nice run for him.''
And a miserable one for Miller. His recent recovery from a poor start with the Diamondbacks took a step backward. Less than a year removed from an All-Star appearance with Atlanta, Miller had his ERA rise to 7.09 after surrendering six runs in five innings.
''I feel I'm obviously a better pitcher than this but the results just aren't there,'' Miller said. ''I'm not going to quit, though.''
The Diamondbacks acquired Miller in December figuring he and Zack Greinke could spearhead the club's return to contention. The transition for both has been uneasy at best. Greinke's ERA is 4.59 and Miller's remains well north of that thanks to an inability to keep the ball in the strike zone or the ballpark, problems that struck once again versus the surging Pirates.
''I keep putting the leadoff hitter on base and that keeps hurting me,'' Miller said. ''I've got to stop doing it. That's pretty simple. I didn't have command of my fastball tonight and it got me into the jams that I wasn't able to escape.''
Francisco Liriano (4-3) scattered two hits in 5 2/3 innings and added an RBI single as the Pirates improved to 6-2 during a 10-game homestand. Pittsburgh is 15-2 in Liriano's last 17 starts at PNC Park, though the left-hander wasn't as clean as he hoped after getting staked to a massive lead, leaving after walking in a run in the sixth.
Pittsburgh reliever Arquimedes Caminero was ejected in the eighth after hitting a pair of batters in the head. Caminero drilled 2B Jean Segura in the seventh and Nick Ahmed in the eighth. Segura was sent to the hospital for tests after showing signs of a concussion. Caminero has struggled all season, walking 13 and hitting three in just 17 1/3 innings of work.
''Guys need to keep the ball down and away from the head area,'' Arizona manager Chip Hale said. ''If a guy can't do it then he has no business being up here in the major leagues.''
Diamondbacks: OF David Peralta is hitting off a tee and sending Hale texts about how rapidly his inflamed right wrist is improving. Peralta went on the disabled list on May 15. ... Reliever Josh Collmenter was scheduled to make a rehab appearance at Triple-A Reno. Collmenter has been on the disabled list all season with right shoulder inflammation.
Pirates: Pitcher Ryan Vogelsong has multiple facial fractures and significant swelling over his left eye after getting hit by a fastball from Colorado's Jordan Lyles on Monday. Vogelsong remained in the hospital on Tuesday and trainer Todd Tomczyk said it could be several days before the swelling subsides enough to get a clearer picture of the extent of Vogelsong's injuries, though Vogelsong's vision has not been severely affected. Pittsburgh called up A.J. Schugel to fill Vogelsong's spot on the roster.
Diamondbacks: Rubby De La Rosa (4-4, 3.53 ERA) returns to work on Wednesday after the Diamondbacks skipped his spot in the rotation while he dealt with a sore groin. De La Rosa is 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA in his last five starts.
Pirates: Jeff Locke (3-3, 4.63 ERA) looks for a second straight victory in the middle game of the three-game set. Locke is 0-2 with a 6.87 ERA in four career appearances against the Diamondbacks.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Penguins' biggest stars nowhere to be found

May 23, 2016

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby smacks the puck after the Lightning beat the Penguins in overtime during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, May 22, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

Will it matter?
The turnaround orchestrated by coach Mike Sullivan. The improvements made by general manager Jim Rutherford. The MVP-form rediscovered by captain Sidney Crosby.
Prospects became regulars.
Veterans accepted different roles.
A proud (and at times arrogant) franchise that had been humbled by bottoming out only to rediscover its blue-collar roots and scoring identity in a glorious rise, the Penguins are once again where they've been too often.
Looking at elimination from the playoffs before the Stanley Cup Final. And if that happens for a seventh consecutive Pittsburgh spring, will anything that happened during a wonderful winter have mattered?
Really mattered?
It doesn't feel like it. A 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night felt all too familiar from inside Consol Energy Center.
It didn't look good inside the Penguins dressing room afterward, either.
As reporters flocked to the stall of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, his fellow members of the Penguins' so-called Big Four (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang) were nowhere to be found.
Not for answers.
Not to protect their goalie.
Failing to show strength in a moment demonstrated their shameful lack of accountability and made it feel like a crisis.
If the Penguins lose in Game 6 at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Tuesday night, nobody — neither co-owner Mario Lemieux nor anybody who has paid hefty prices to watch his Penguins play over the past seven years — should forget that moment. In fact, it should be remembered as the moment when the three Penguins who make the most money left it up to the likes of Bryan Rust, Olli Maatta and Beau Bennett to explain another lousy playoff loss in the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era.
I know which Penguins I'll be looking at in Game 6.
As for Game 5, a lot of Penguins spent too much of it looking lost. Atop that list are Crosby and Letang.
The Penguins' top line, anchored by Crosby, couldn't have come up smaller in a bigger moment. In a series tied 2-2, Game 5 winners usually become the victors.
So, yeah, the Penguins needed better from Crosby and winger Patric Hornqvist, who were on the ice for a team-worst 18 shot attempts against at 5-on-5 play.
Hornqvist, at least, appears to be working with a left hand limited by injury. The top line's left winger for Game 5, the oft-injured Bennett, had 13 shots attempted go against him.
But Bennett hadn't played in these playoffs before Game 5.
What was Crosby's excuse? What will be the reason Crosby couldn't get the Penguins back to the Cup Final this time?
If the Penguins don't rally to play for the Cup for the first time since winning it in 2009, somebody somewhere — in Pittsburgh, and if not, certainly in his native Canada — is going to absolve Crosby of responsibility for the loss.
Somebody always does.
The argument will probably be that Crosby scored winning goals in Games 2 and 3 against the Lightning.
Great. Awesome.
Where was he in Game 5? And what in the name of Bobby Orr was Letang doing most of Sunday night?
With fellow defenseman Trevor Daley out because of a broken ankle, Letang needed to match his MVP-level that he was providing most of these playoffs. He fell far below that high bar.
Perhaps the best skating defenseman in the NHL spent a lot of time standing around. When Letang didn't, he was lunging aimlessly and leaving Fleury exposed.
Fleury deserves to be cut some slack only because he hadn't played a full game since March 31. Still, the Penguins' franchise goalie needed to make a couple more saves than he did once Sullivan turned Fleury's team back over to him.
At least Fleury had something to say after the Penguins' blew leads of 2-0 and 3-2 and for the first time failed to win a game they entered the third period leading.
Malkin, who centered the Penguins' most effective line in Game 5, could have offered a few words for his guys.
But he, as did Crosby and Letang, fled the scene.
Maybe it looked too familiar.
It does from this view.
The Penguins are on the verge of another postseason disappointment. That it might happen in Round 3 shouldn't matter.
What did CEO David Morehouse say a couple of years ago? Something about his franchise needing to contend consistently for the Cup?
It has to play for it to do that.
Maybe the Penguins should be playing for more than their playoff lives in Game 6?
How about the Pittsburgh futures of all the guys making the big money?
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter@RobRossi_Trib.