Matt Murray makes a save on Brian Boyle. (Photo: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
PITTSBURGH -- First, let us not speak one word about momentum as we contemplate Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Momentum is a fable, a myth, a bedtime story for hockey writers and fans that has no basis in reality.
Don't believe me? Where was the momentum genie when the Pittsburgh Penguins steamrolled the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 and then promptly dropped Games 4 and 5, setting up Tuesday's must-win situation in Tampa in Game 6?
Where was the momentum for the Lightning, who had scored 53 seconds into overtime in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead and then were dominated through the first two periods of Game 6 en route to a 5-2 loss that sets the stage for Game 7 in Pittsburgh on Thursday night?
So let's agree that whatever transpires in Game 7 at Consol Energy Center won't have anything to do with momentum.
Here are three non-momentum-related reasons the Penguins will advance to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2009.
The captain is back in command
Let's start with the big man, Sidney Crosby. Although he endured an eight-game goalless drought that extended into this series, Crosby has delivered in crucial moments throughout the conference finals -- including a glorious individual effort on Tuesday that gave the Penguins a 3-0 lead in Game 6 and eventually stood as the game winner. He has, in fact, delivered the dagger in all three games won by Pittsburgh in this series.
Another interesting stat: The Penguins have won the last 11 postseason games in which Crosby has scored. If he has historically struggled to produce late in playoff series since the 2009 Stanley Cup win, Crosby's performance in Game 6 suggests a new trend is emerging.
"Well, you want to produce, especially this time of year," Crosby said Wednesday morning as the Penguins prepared to jet back to Pittsburgh. "You want to contribute. But I think we have a lot of belief, a lot of trust in everybody."
The bottom line: If they get another big game from the captain, the Penguins will have one skate in the finals.
Sullivan has the golden touch with his goalies
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has had the Midas touch pretty much ever since the week after he took over for Mike Johnston in December, but he was criticized for his handling of the Penguins' goaltending in this series. The common refrain was that in going to Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5, Sullivan might have set the Pens on a path of ruin -- especially when Fleury was less than stellar in a 4-3 overtime loss. Then, when he went back to Matt Murray for Game 6, many wondered if the rookie would be bent out of shape by being replaced and if it would somehow affect his play.
But what if Sullivan's move actually gave the Pens a better chance at winning -- not just Game 6, but the entire series and even the Cup itself? What if Murray -- who turned 22 on Wednesday -- actually benefited from the night off? His 17-save performance in the third period of Game 6 certainly suggested that he was as sharp as he's been all spring. Sullivan was very emphatic on Wednesday that the move wasn't designed to punish someone for poor play.
"You guys always insinuate that if someone doesn't play [means that] they [have been] benched, and that wasn't the case at all," Sullivan said. "Matt played a lot of hockey. He played a lot of games. This is a battle. You're playing every other night. If it was the regular season, we probably wouldn't play our starting goalie that many games in a row. As a young goaltender, sometimes that's a tough load to carry."
Regardless of the motivation, there was a high degree of risk involved with the decision. But if Murray turns in another performance like he did in Game 6, then the Penguins will likely advance and Sullivan will deserve more credit than he's receiving for his decisions.
The Pens are keeping their marbles in the bag, not on the ice
Even when the Lightning really started to bring it in the third period of Game 6 -- at one point making the score 3-2 before the Penguins pulled away late -- it didn't seem like Pittsburgh was a team about to crumble. The Penguins displayed discipline that had been lacking at various points in the playoffs as they allowed Tampa only one power-play opportunity in Game 6.
Kris Letang, whose marbles sometimes end up on the ice, was composed and dynamic, going plus-2 and scoring a big goal a game after he was minus-4 and should have been whistled for two or three penalties. But it was the play of Olli Maatta that suggests this Penguins team has come to terms with not having Trevor Daley (out for the rest of season with a broken ankle) and can move forward without the top-four defender. Maatta was benched (sorry, Coach Sullivan) for three games in this series, as injury and uneven play conspired to make this a trying spring for the talented young defender. But he's been much better since returning to the lineup, adding an assist in each of the last two games and seeing his ice time jump from 17:21 in Game 5 to 22:17 in Game 6. His youthful poise will be a key factor in whether the Penguins are able to emerge from Game 7.
"First of all, I'm having a lot of fun," Maatta said. "It's disappointing to sit out for a couple of games. When I get back out there I've had a lot of fun playing. That's probably something I want to take out of it and I want to do every game."