Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel shoots and scores on Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby during Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals, Tuesday, May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Entering the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins had clinched just one series on home ice since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. After beating the Washington Capitals, 4-3, in Game 6 on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center, they’ve done it twice in two series.
The victory didn’t come easy, but Nick Bonino scored the game-winner at 6:32 of the first overtime to eliminate the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals.
“It felt great,” Bonino said. “Best feeling in the game right there, to win a series and have your teammates around you in the corner. It’s pretty fun.”
They weren’t enjoying themselves during the third period, when the Capitals tied the game at 3-3.
“You always have to stick with it,” said Phil Kessel, who scored two goals and assisted the game-winner. “They’re a good hockey club. You know they’re going to push and we got it done in the end.”
The Penguins used two power-play goals in the second period to open up a 3-1 lead and were feeling comfortable about how they had played. They were dominating pretty much all facets of the game, but then unraveled in a bizarre sequence.
They were issued back-to-back-to-back delay of game penalties over a span of 2:02 in the third period, then capped it off with an interference penalty to Kris Letang.
“We need to install some taller boards, some taller glass," defenseman Ben lovejoy said. "Those are tough. As soon as it leaves the guy’s stick, the guy feels incredibly bad. You’re trying to make hard plays. You’re trying to do everything you can to get pucks out of the zone and out. We had some unlucky bounces today.”
The Capitals finally broke through and got a goal against the Penguins' taxed penalty-killing unit from John Carlson.
“Yeah, it was the worst feeling I think I ever had in hockey when I whacked the puck out of play,” said Bonino, who took the second delay of game penalty. “Then [Ian Cole] did it after [Chris Kunitz] did it. That’s something you’ll never see. I thought the kill on the ice did a great job. We responded well when [Letang] got one late.”
All of it might have had Penguins teams from years past wilting under the pressure. They would have blown a chance to finish off an opponent on home ice -- again -- and set up Game 7 in Washington.
Not this group, though. History doesn’t mean much to them, and that is a testament to their coach, Mike Sullivan, who always has them looking forward. It is why when the Penguins leaped over the hurdle that was the Rangers in Round 1, Letang snapped at a reporter who asked about history.
“Half of the team is gone,” he said. “Why would we bring (up) the past? It doesn’t do anything to us.”
That said, history has repeated itself in almost every postseason since 2009. Bad penalties, the inability to score goals or simply just not being the better team, as was the case last season, always undid the Penguins' intentions.
This group has proven to be different. They have a new coach, a new attitude and a number of new faces, including Bonino, who was thrilled to get this win on home ice and catapult his team into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013.
“I think wherever we clinch, we want to clinch,” Bonino said. “We would have loved to do it in Game 5, and to do it at home in front of the fans is just another great feeling. It’s pretty special.”