Facing elimination for the first time in the 2016 playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins took a page from their one-time coach Herb Brooks, who famously told his 1980 U.S hockey team that great moments are born from great opportunity.
“I just told them to embrace the moment; it’s a great opportunity for us,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “These are the types of circumstances where you have an opportunity to write your own story, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Pittsburgh threw 26 shots at Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy over the first 40 minutes of hockey and limited Tampa Bay to 11 attempts on Matt Murray, who returned to the Penguins’ net after sitting out Game 5 in favor of Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins got some early luck when a goal by Tampa’s Jonathan Drouin was recalled for being offside. “Obviously, that’s a huge break for us,” said winger Patric Hornqvist. “If they’re [up] 1-0, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
So the Penguins kept pressing – and their stars came out to shine.
With just over a minute remaining in the first period, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin set up Phil Kessel for the first Pittsburgh goal. Kris Letang added another 7:40 into the second period. And Crosby, with just 26 seconds remaining in the middle frame, powered past three Tampa Bay defenders for a memorable goal to build the lead to 3-0.
“We know the circumstances. You go out there with a mindset of playing desperate; I think it’s pretty natural when you’re in this situation,” Crosby said. “I think we have confidence in the whole group, no matter who it needs to be to step up. Everyone contributes in their own way and, in a big game like this, you don’t have to do anything special. You just need to do your job. That’s gotten us this far.”
But, as has become their trademark, this Lightning team was too skilled, too tenacious to roll over. Five minutes into a third period where they came out pressuring hard, they got a break when Kessel’s skate inadvertently directed Brian Boyle’s shot right into Pittsburgh’s net. With plenty of time remaining, Tampa Bay had life.
And at 12:43, with Murray under siege in a period that saw the Lightning outshoot the Penguins 19-8, Boyle sniped a puck top-shelf to record his first postseason multi-goal game and, more importantly, cut the Penguins’ lead to 3-2.
“Obviously they’re a good team, and you knew they were going to push in the third,” Kessel said. “They made a push, and we bended but we didn’t break.”
It wasn’t until five minutes later, with just 2:08 remaining in the contest, that the visitors – and their fans back in Pittsburgh – were finally able to breathe. Winger Bryan Rust ended up on a breakaway, faked a shot into Vasilevskiy’s pads, then tucked it into the side of the net to put his team up, 4-2, and halt the Lightning comeback.
“I’ve had enough breakaways this year to realize that shooting hasn’t been working for me,” Rust laughed. “So I listened to the pre-scout a little bit; just tried to deke hard to glove side.”
Nick Bonino, who thought he’d scored on a long-range shot that Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman rescued before it crossed the goal line, got some consolation with an empty-netter to make it 5-2 and put the game away.
“Matt was huge for us in the last 10 minutes,” Hornqvist said. “He’s 21 years old but he plays like he’s 30. You can’t say enough about him.”
“Unfortunately, [when] you put yourself behind by three, it’s hard to mount a comeback,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “They played better than us for two periods. All their players pretty much played better than all our players for 40 minutes. All our players played probably better than them for 20 minutes. That was it.”
Now the Penguins have earned the opportunity to compete in a winner-take-all Game 7 Thursday in their home building, with nothing less than a trip to their first Stanley Cup Final in seven years on the line.
“I think you go through different experiences and you realize how hard it is to get these kinds of opportunities,” said Crosby, who’s scored the game-winning goal in all three Penguins wins. “If anything, just have an appreciation for how hard it is to get to this point. As a group, we’ve been through a lot, and we just want to make the most of this.”
“We were not in the playoffs when Sully took over [on December 21],” Hornqvist said. “We’ve been through a lot, and the last three months we’ve played really good hockey. This group always finds a way to win big games, and now we have to come up with an even bigger one.”
The Lightning have been in this situation before – just last year, in fact, when they dropped Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final at home, then went to one of the league’s most intimidating arenas in New York’s Madison Square Garden and beat the Rangers in Game 7.
“Ultimately, we can’t spot a team like this a three-goal lead,” Cooper said. “Now you’ve got to go back into a tough environment, just like the Garden was last year, and you’ve got to have your A-game.
“We had a chance to knock them out tonight. Give Pittsburgh a ton of credit for the way they played and how they handled things. They’ve volleyed the ball into our court; now it’s time for us to smash it back.”
Leading up to the contest, much of the talk was centered around “guarantees” made by Hornqvist and Malkin that the series would come back to Pittsburgh, and the goaltending decision. For Sullivan, though, it’s about the team dynamic of what he feels is a special group.
“There are certain things that go on out there that you can’t control, but what you can control is your attitude, your determination, your work ethic, your never-say-die mindset. And I think this group has it,” he said. “I think they believe in one another; they sincerely care about each other and they play hard for one another.
“When you have that dynamic on a team, that’s a pretty neat thing to watch. They’re a privilege to coach because of how they go about their business each and every day. And I knew we had a determined group tonight. They had a mindset that we’re going to leave it all out there and do everything we can to try to bring this back to Pittsburgh, and that’s what they did.”