With a 4-3 overtime win in Game 6 over the Ottawa Senators, the Pittsburgh Penguins have become just the second defending Stanley Cup Champion since 2002 to advance to the second round of the playoffs. The lone team to defy that dubious tradition before this year was the Detroit Red Wings, who made it all the way to the 2009 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the team they defeated the year before – the Penguins.
With the way Game 6 started off, the Senators were well on their way to punching their tickets back to Pittsburgh for a winner-take-all Game 7 Tuesday night.
Ottawa came out with more jump after winning Friday’s triple-overtime marathon in Pittsburgh, spending most of the first half of the opening frame in the Penguins’ zone, and got on the board first when a Penguins defensive lapse left Senators forward Matt Cullen with a one-on-one chance against Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Later in the period, the Penguins appeared to have tied the game on a rebound goal from fourth-line forward Mike Rupp. But the replay couldn’t conclusively show that the puck crossed the goal line, so the on-ice call – no goal – stood. That was the first of three potential goals that were disallowed on the night, two for Pittsburgh, one for Ottawa.
Pittsburgh began to show some desperation after that, pressuring the Senators in their end and drawing nearly even in shots by the end of the period. But Ottawa negated the Penguins’ momentum fast, with Chris Neil putting up another goal early in the second and captain Daniel Alfredsson making it 3-0 by the midway point.
And Pittsburgh’s top line was having a brutal first half of the hockey game, with forwards Sidney Crosby, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz and defensemen Kris Letang and Mark Eaton on the ice for all three goals for a combined minus-15.
But, just over a minute after Alfredsson’s tally, third-line grinder Matt Cooke gave Pittsburgh some life, putting a rebound past Senators goalie Pascal Leclaire who, for the second consecutive game, wasn’t giving up many of them.
“That was huge,” said center Jordan Staal, who fired the initial shot. “I knew our line was due for a big game, and Cookie came out big for us. He’s a hard-working player and goes to the net hard, and that was a huge goal. It really got us some momentum.”
The Penguins went to their dressing room for the second intermission down 3-1, but the killer instinct they’d failed to show earlier in the game – or early in Game 5, for that matter, when they fell behind, 2-0, to a desperate Senators team – was kicking in, just in time for the final frame.
And Craig Adams, part of the fourth line that had been so strong for the Penguins, provided a few words of motivation.
“He’s the guy to lean on for that, and it really got us going,” Staal said. “It was just the onus on our team that we needed to go out, every player, and try to go get it. We didn’t want to go to Game 7, obviously. We needed this win tonight.”
Early in the third, the Penguins had a big opportunity on the power play – not only was Senators defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who had done a masterful job of blocking shots and defending the Penguins’ offensive stars in this series, in the box and unavailable for the penalty kill, but Leclaire had tossed aside his broken goalie stick and was playing with Jarkko Ruutu’s. And Guerin took full advantage, scoring with a blast from the point and redeeming his rough start to the night.
A few minutes later, it was Cooke, with his second rebound goal of the night, who tied it for the Penguins. When the teams left the ice to prepare for overtime, Pittsburgh had outshot Ottawa 18-4 in the third period – and putting shots on a team that was excelling at collapsing around its goaltender to block them was the key, as some eventually got through.
The teams traded chances in the extra frame, but Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis was the hero, taking Staal’s feed from behind the net and firing it past Leclaire on the glove side.
“I had some time and I knew a few guys were changing [shifts], so someone was going to come through,” Staal said. “I went around the one guy, saw the other guy coming at me, so I knew someone was going to be open in the slot and duper made an unbelievable shot.”
Just like that, midway through the first overtime period, Pittsburgh had come all the way back to score four unanswered goals. And the Senators, who looked destined for a decisive Game 7 at the start of the third, found themselves on the wrong end of a handshake line.
“We knew they weren’t going to give up,” said Sens forward Mike Fisher. “We played pretty good throughout, and they just came on strong in overtime, and that can always go either way. We put ourselves in a position where we could force a Game 7, one goal away, and the guys didn’t give up; they battled hard. It was just too little.”
The series played out eerily like Pittsburgh’s first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers last year. Up three games to one, the Penguins couldn’t finish off the Flyers at home in Game 5, fell behind 3-0 on the road in Game 6, then came back to score five unanswered goals and win that contest, and the series.
“We didn’t want that to happen, but it just shows the character in this room and the way we can battle through things, leave games behind and worry about the next one,” said Staal, who finished the night with more than 20 minutes of ice time, two assists and a plus-two. “Even tonight, we left the first two periods behind and went out and did our best in the third.”
The Penguins can now get some much-needed rest as they wait for the other first-round series to end; all remaining Eastern Conference teams except the Washington Capitals are potential second-round opponents. Their injured players – defenseman Jordan Leopold, who’s been out since Game 1 after a punishing hit from Ottawa’s Andy Sutton, and winger Tyler Kennedy, who missed Games 5 and 6 with a leg injury – can continue to heal.
And Pittsburgh isn’t sorry to miss out on a Game 7 against the scrappy Senators, who engaged them in a highly physical series – throwing 49 hits to Pittsburgh’s 43 in Game 6 – and proved to be a very tough opponent, particularly in the final two games.
“It took 10 periods for us to finally finish it off,” Crosby said. “They’re a solid team, they have a lot of depth, and going up against [defense pairing] Chris Phillips and Volchenkov every night, that’s not an easy task. They played physical and they were close games, especially the last couple. It was tough.”
Even tougher, no doubt, for the losing team.
“We’re playing the defending champions, got behind 3-1 and battled back,” said Sens forward Jason Spezza. “But it’s always tough losing this time of year, knowing you’ve got to go home.”