Sidney Crosby didn’t just touch the Prince of Wales trophy this time. He lifted it along with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, held it for photos with alternate captains Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, then carried it across the ice to the Penguins’ locker room for a team picture.

“I think in the 90s when [the Penguins] won they touched it, then in ‘08 we didn’t, and we didn’t win,” Crosby said. “So in ‘09 we decided to go ahead and touch it, and try to keep that same kind of thing. Everyone’s different, but it’s gone well when we’ve touched it here, so we went with that.”

Crosby’s quirks and superstitions haven’t changed much in the seven years his team has been trying to get back to the Stanley Cup Final. But his face – respectable playoff beard included – shows the passing of that time, and his words reflect the experience of an NHL veteran.

“It’s not easy and, having gone through a couple of those early on, 20 and 21 years old, I think you have more appreciation for it now,” Crosby said. “Just love the opportunity to be able to get back.”

The Penguins earned that opportunity by facing down elimination in Game 6 in Tampa, then by coming home and winning a Game 7 for the first time at CONSOL Energy Center, their home for the past six years.

Rookie Bryan Rust provided all the offense the Penguins would need with his two second-period goals – one early in the frame, and the other, critically, on the shift immediately following the Lightning’s Jonathan Drouin tying the game at 1-1 on a spectacular solo effort.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said the Penguins’ power play, despite failing to convert on its five opportunities, still managed to inflict damage.

“When Jon gets that tying goal, we’re pretty fired up, and it’s a little bit of a killer to give up that goal in the next shift,” Cooper said. “I don’t know if we had 20 minutes of power play time in this series, and I guarantee they had well over 40. When you’re killing that much, it’s just a momentum killer for you, and that hurt us in the second period for sure.”

Still, Tampa’s netminder stood tall. The Penguins fired a total of 39 shots at the Lightning goal, but 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy continued his brilliance in relief of starter Ben Bishop, the Vezina Trophy nominee who was injured back in Game 1.

Clinging to the slender, 2-1 lead, Pittsburgh couldn’t get any more of a cushion, making fans of both teams hold their breath until the final buzzer as any of the Lightning’s highly skilled players threatened to tie the contest any time the puck was on their sticks.

But the Penguins learned from their mistakes earlier in the series. This time, instead of trying to sit on a third-period lead, Pittsburgh stayed aggressive and continued to dictate the pace.

“Tampa Bay is a team that, if you give them the time and space, they’re very dangerous,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “They’re dynamic offensively. We wanted to play in their face and try to keep the gaps tight so we could take some of their speed away and their ability to stretch the ice.  And when we don’t play that way – for example, in the third period in Game 6 [when Tampa closed within a goal of what was a 3-0 lead] – you can see how dangerous they can be.

“We tried to use that experience coming into this third period to say, we can’t make that same mistake. We’ve got to continue to skate. We’ve got to continue to pursue. We’ve got to continue to play the same way that’s brought us the success that the first two periods did.”

The Penguins outshot the Lightning, 269-178, in the series – yet, largely because of Vasilevskiy, Tampa took the series the distance and lost by only a single, Game 7 goal.

“Well, let’s be honest; I don’t think we’re where we are in this series if it wasn’t for him,” Cooper said. “It’s amazing for such a young kid to play in the Stanley Cup Final already, which he did last year, and then to have to come in [and] help us get to Game 7. He was the rock back there, especially talking about the chances and shots they had. Obviously, he’s got a bright, bright future.”

In the Pittsburgh net, rookie Matt Murray – no longer a 21-year-old like Vasilevskiy, as he turned all of 22 on Wednesday – wasn’t under siege nearly as much as his Lightning counterpart. Murray faced only 17 shots on the night but, other than Drouin’s top-shelf, no-look shot, came up with the saves.

And, while the tension for many watching the game increased as the final buzzer approached, the Penguins’ unflappable young goaltender said he was actually having fun.

“This is my first time going through something like this; a lot of new experiences,” Murray said. “I’m just trying to enjoy myself, stay in the moment and appreciate the moment. And that third period was some of the most fun I’ve had playing hockey.”

Sullivan is having fun, too.

“I can’t even explain to you how excited I am for the group we have, and how proud I am of them for how hard they play for each other,” he said. “You know, I’ve been in the game a long time, and you don’t always get associated with a group that has the chemistry this group has. I believe we have evolved into a team in the truest sense of the word, and I thought tonight it was on display.

“I know there’s a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself.  And for me, when you’re part of something that’s bigger than yourself, it’s a special feeling. And I know these guys have it right now.”

The Penguins open the Stanley Cup Final at home, where they’ll host the San Jose Sharks on Monday.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said with a grin. “From what I’ve watched, it’s two teams that want to play the exact same way. They want to get their D involved. Their power play is really dangerous, so we’ll have to find a way to stay out of the box.

“Whoever gets to their game the most often and the best is going to win. It’s going to be quite the series.”

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