Wednesday, May 25, 2016

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."

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