For Sidney Crosby to have the opportunity to do what true superstars often do on a stage this big, his Pittsburgh Penguins first had to play nearly 60 minutes of dominant hockey.
After dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final with a lethargic effort on home ice, the Penguins came out for Game 2 looking determined to not let it happen again. They brought their speed and an aggressive forecheck to the early minutes of Game 2, and were rewarded just 4:32 in when Matt Cullen found space in front of the net to fire home Eric Fehr’s rebound.
Five minutes later, the HBK line, indispensable with a combined 34 points in these playoffs, struck when Carl Hagelin put a shot on goal, Nick Bonino took a crack at the rebound and Phil Kessel, seeing the loose puck, turned on the jets to swoop in and score.
Less than halfway through the opening frame, the Penguins were up 2-0. It looked like things were going to be just fine for the home team.
And then the Penguins got two power play opportunities that changed the course of the game. Not because they were able to score or generate much with the man-advantage, but because the Lightning gained momentum on the penalty kill, then got quick goals from Anton Stralman and Jonathan Drouin shortly after the penalties expired.
In the span of about two and a half minutes late in the first period, all the Penguins’ early momentum was for naught as they went to the intermission deadlocked at 2-2.
The Drouin goal in particular had the feel of a backbreaker. It came with under a minute remaining in the period and was one that, with Drouin skating in alone from three-quarters of the length of the ice, young netminder Matt Murray could’ve been expected to stop.
“That second one was on me,” Murray said. “Just a bad goal. It was from distance, through our D-man, through a bit of a screen, and I just overplayed it. It beat me in between my body and my arm, and you never want to get beat through you. And just the timing of it; we got out to a quick lead and weren’t able to hold it.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan, however, stuck with the rookie, despite appearing to tell veteran Marc-Andre Fleury to be ready to go before the start of the second, just in case Murray faltered.
“It’s probably fair to say [Murray] would’ve liked that second one back, but that’s hockey sometimes,” Sullivan said. “And what we’ve always really liked about Matt is his ability to respond when things don’t go the way he wants them to go. He’s always responded in such a positive way.”
With a much more even second period – the shots were 8-7 Penguins, as opposed to 14-8 in the first – Murray got the chance to make some saves and regain his steadiness. Perhaps none was bigger than his stop on an Alex Killorn breakaway with just 10 seconds remaining in the frame.
“It was a huge save; there’s no doubt,” Sullivan said. “It could have been a game-changer.”
But it wasn’t. And Pittsburgh came out for the third period on a renewed mission.
The Penguins outshot the Bolts, 16-6, in the final period. But Tampa Bay’s own 21-year-old netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy, playing for the injured Ben Bishop, stopped them all.
“He’s outstanding,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “You never want to lose your No. 1 guy, but you’ve got No. 1 A-plus right behind him. I thought he was outstanding tonight, and probably the reason why that game went to overtime in the first place.”
“I thought we had the right mindset going into the third,” Crosby said. “We played on our toes; we were aggressive. It’s a 2-2 game, and I think everyone helped each other create momentum and make it easier on the next line that went out there, to hopefully get out there against a tired group or get them on their heels a bit.”
The Penguins approached overtime with that same mindset, picking up right where they left off in the third. In the first 40 seconds, they got the only three chances of the OT, including the only one they needed.
With forward Bryan Rust coming in on the left wing, Vasilevskiy was preparing for a shot. But Rust heard someone coming right behind him, yelling for the puck. He paused and dished it to Sidney Crosby, who dropped to one knee to find an open shooting lane.
With that shot, Crosby, who along with fellow star center Evgeni Malkin has taken plenty of heat for not getting on the scoresheet enough in these playoffs, silenced his detractors. It was Crosby’s first-ever playoff overtime goal and, at 40 seconds in, the fastest in Penguins playoff overtime history.
“Just happy,” Crosby said. “Whether I scored in the last seven games or hadn’t scored in the last whatever, it feels good to get rewarded. I think we deserved that win tonight.”
“I wouldn’t say it was wearing on him, [but] I think he knows he’s under the microscope,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “He’s our unquestioned leader. He has led us into the third round, and it’s 1-1 right now, and he scored a gigantic goal tonight. He expects, and everybody else in this room expects, to keep going.”
And the Penguins have reason to feel good about keeping it going, as a series that could’ve been a shot away from the Lightning stealing both games in Pittsburgh now heads to Tampa tied 1-1.
That’s a testament to the Penguins’ resilience. They’re 4-0 after a loss this postseason, and haven’t lost back-to-back games since mid-January.
“I just liked our stick-to-it-iveness,” Sullivan said. “We just stayed with it, kept trying to play the game the right way, and that’s what I like most about the group. I thought as the game wore on, we got better and better.”
“Ultimately, we got one of them,” Cooper said. “We came here to get two and, [while] we may not have been the better team tonight, we were one shot away, so it’s unfortunate the way it turned out. We’ve got to up our game moving forward here.”