Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal against Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators during the second period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby saw the way Chris Kunitz was holding his stick, watched him stop atop the left circle and knew his long-time left wing wanted to let one rip.
Crosby slid a pass to Kunitz, whose shot sailed past Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson at 5 minutes, 9 seconds of the second overtime to give the Penguins a 3-2 victory Thursday night and clinch a return to the Stanley Cup Final.
“I was just trying to get it to a soft spot,” Kunitz said of his 27th career playoff goal. “The puck fluttered off my stick. I don't know if it touched him or just kept going right by him. It just found its way into the net, so sometimes you get lucky when you put one on net.”
This was a night where no one knew whether luck, let alone history, would be on the Penguins' side. Twenty-six years ago Thursday night, they won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
That was a good omen.
That the reigning Stanley Cup champions were playing a Game 7 at PPG Paints Arena against the Ottawa Senators for the Eastern Conference championship, not so much.
The Penguins were 9-7 in Game 7s, but only 3-7 on home ice. Then again, the Senators were 0-5 all-time in Game 7s. Something had to give, and the Penguins were hoping it wasn't their chance to repeat.
In the Crosby era, the Penguins have been eliminated on home ice in Game 7s by the Montreal Canadiens (2010), Tampa Bay Lightning (2011) and New York Rangers (2014).
The 37-year-old Kunitz made sure the Senators weren't next.
“You never know if you're going to get another chance to come this far. You never know if you're going to play on this ice again with this team. You have to make sure you make that last as long as you can,” said Kunitz, an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
“It's not a lot of fun thinking about the future when you want to be here playing with your team. Sometimes, it comes down to luck for a goal going against you and your season's over. It's not over for us yet. We've got another challenge in front of us and a chance to win another Cup.”
Kunitz didn't just score the winner, he scored the game's opening goal. The Penguins were 8-1 in Game 7s when scoring first, 1-6 when allowing the first goal. So there was a sense of relief when Kunitz scored his first goal of these playoffs at 9:55 of the second period, his first since putting the finishing touch on Crosby's 1,000th point back on Feb. 16.
Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates after scoring a goal against Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators during the second period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
“I think he has the mindset, No. 1,” Crosby said. “You've got to understand that you have to go into that game with a different mentality, just a level of desperation and energy that you need to bring. He understands that with the experience and the games he's played in.
“Just all of the little things that he does so well in big games, they show a little bit more because those details are so important to winning. Somebody like him, who understands that, I think that those are just magnified in games like this.”
Twenty seconds later, however, that celebration turned to frustration when the Senators got a tying tally from right wing Mark Stone to make it 1-1.
The Penguins took another lead in the third, after Phil Kessel flopped along the boards to draw an interference penalty on defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Justin Schultz, out since Game 2 with an injury, scored a power-play goal for a 2-1 advantage at 11:44.
Again, the Senators answered. This time, Erik Karlsson's shot from the blue line hit the left post and ricocheted to the right. Murray turned his head toward the echo, just long enough for Ryan Dzingel to push the puck into the net on the opposite side and tie it 2-2 at 14:41.
The Penguins knew they were in for a long night — a very long night, it turns out, as the game lasted 85-plus minutes — and one where past playoff failures and successes mattered not. This was about history in the making, and Game 7 had everything you could have wanted: scoring chances, blocked shots, great saves and near misses, plus two extra periods.