Observations from the Penguins' 5-2 win against the Lightning:
The Penguins have three wins in this series.
Center Sidney Crosby has all three game-winning goals in each of those contests.
Sense a trend?
After largely being inert in a deflating Game 5 loss, the Penguins' top players had their fingerprints all over a victory which extended their season by at least one game.
After getting two big breaks in the form of a reviewed offside call and five-on-three power play, the Penguins' top players staked out a three-goal cushion which was enough to withstand a furious charge by the Lightning. With goaltender Matt Murray valiantly trying to keep the hordes from storming the castle, the Penguins stamped out the Lightning's momentum with late goals which allowed them to return home with a chance to move on to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in seven years.
Their stars put them in this position tonight.
"That's what big players do in big moments," said right winger Patric Hornqvist.
The Lightning appeared to take the game's first lead at 5:12 of the first period. Lightning left winger Ondrej Palat went wide with the puck in the left circle and fed a pass past stretched out defenseman Kris Letang and through the leg of defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the slot. The puck found left winger Jonathan Drouin trailing in the right circle. With Murray out of position, Drouin was able to slide the puck into a wide open net. The Penguins challenged the play based on it being offside. After a lengthy review, the officials determined Hedman entered the offensive zone before the puck. No goal.
A power-play goal on a five-on-three advantage gave the Penguins' the game's first lead with 1:14 remaining in the first period. Center Evgeni Malkin fed a pass from the high slot to center Sidney Crosby in the right circle. Crosby attempted a cross-ice pass which he fanned on a bit. The puck hopped into the air through the slot. Right winger Phil Kessel, positioned to the left of the crease, was able to swat the puck out of the air past the blocker of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Assists went to Crosby and Malkin.
They made it a 2-0 game at 7:40 of the second period. Left winger Conor Sheary gained the offensive zone at center point and veered to above the right circle. He curled around and fed a pass to Letang trailing. Using a cluster of bodies, including right winger Patric Hornqvist as a screen, Letang ripped a wrister which beat Vasilevskiy's blocker on the far side. Sheary and center Nick Bonino netted assists.
A late goal with 26 seconds left in the second period made it a 3-0 contest. After Hornqvist forced Lightning center Tyler Johnson into a turnover in the neutral zone, Crosby collected the puck, gained the offensive zone with speed at center point, blew by Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman and attacked the net where he snapped off a wrister through Vasilevskiy's five hole. Hornqvist netted the lone assist.
The Lightning got on the scoreboard at 5:30 of the third period thanks to some luck. Lightning center Brian Boyle pushed a puck up the right wing and as Dumoulin pressured, he flung a backhanded pass attempt towards the slot. Kessel, on a backcheck, tried to knock the puck out of midair but ended deflecting it past Murray's glove hand on the near side. The goal was unassisted.
It became a 3-2 game at 7:17 of the third. Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek tried to feed a pass from the left circle but his pass attempt was blocked by sliding center Eric Fehr. The puck hopped across the ice to Boyle in the right circle. He settled the puck with his skate and sniped a wrister past Murray's right shoulder and into the net on the far side. Koekkoek and Drouin netted assists.
With the Lightning bombarding the offensive zone, the Penguins got a big insurance goal from right winger Bryan Rust with 2:08 left in regulation. Left winger Chris Kunitz settled a puck on this right half wall and feathered a smooth pass up ice to Rust. Rust pulled away from Hedman and approached the net. He deked to his backhand, got Vasilevskiy to commit and pulled back to his forehand as he tucked in a shot by Vasilevskiy's left skate. The goal snuffed out the Lightning's comeback hopes and secured the win as well as a Game 7. Kunitz and defenseman Olli Maatta had assists.
An empty net goal by Bonino with 54 seconds left in regulation capped off the scoring. Defenseman Ben Lovejoy had the only assist.
The coach's challenge issued by the Penguins was critical. The Lightning seemingly had so much momentum off that goal. The building was rocking. Its players had some jump in their step celebrating. Then it was ground to a halt with the lengthy review and then subsequent decicison. As this series has shown, almost no deficit is too much to overcome but an early lead for the Lightning gives this game a different road map.
-Murray almost seemed automatic after that non-goal. He was in perfect position nearly every time and didn't really have to scramble to make many saves. The only goals he allowed were off a fluky hop from his own player's stick and a nearly perfect shot by Boyle. He rebounded off of being benched in Game 5 and showed he is clearly the Penguins' top goaltender at the moment.
-Letang rebounded in a big way as well. It wasn't so much just his goal, which was nice. But just his composure in most situations. He wasn't out of position as he was often during Game 5. He had a clean game. The Penguins need this version of Kris Letang if they hope to advance.
-The Penguins got a tad lucky with the two-man advantage they worked with in the first period leading to Kessel's goal. After Stralman was called for interference, Hedman shot a puck out of play from his own zone above the netting behind the Penguins' zone and was called for delay of game. Crosby appeared to fan on a pass attempt which hopped up. Kessel was able to get a stick on the airborne puck to score the goal. Regardless of what happened, the fact the Penguins were able to get a goal with the Lightning's top two defensive defensemen in the box was crucial.
-Crosby's goal was a work of art. It was one of those dominant power goals which punctuated the early parts of his career. The timing of it was critical. The Lightning seemed to settle things a bit after Letang's goal and was set to enter the third period only trailing by two goals. Crosby's goal made the hill a little steeper to climb.
-The Kunitz-Malkin-Rust line, or at least elements of it, continues to contribute. Rust's goal was a smooth breakaway which squashed any hopes the Lightning had at tying the game. It was set up by a perfect pass from Kunitz. This trio has really driven a lot of this team's offense as of late.
-Sheary returned to the lineup as well after being a scratch in Game 5. He looked recharged. His skating was sharper and he made a nice entry as well as a nice drop pass setting up Letang's goal. The Penguins need more of this from him in Game 7.
-The fact that the Penguins got three power-play chances to the Lightning's one certainly didn't hurt their cause.
-Malkin appeared to be shaken up on a big hit in the third period by Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn:
-Malkin went to the bench in discomfort but finished the game.
-While the Penguins' top players drove their team, the Lightning's top remaining healthy players didn't offer much, at least after Drouin's non-goal. Both Tampa Bay goals came from a bottom six forward. The Lightning need a greater contribution from the likes of Johnson, Palat, right winger Nikita Kucherov and others.
-We're not sure how to fairly gauge Vasilevskiy's game. He was under a bevy of shots most of the night and just didn't look sharp. Regardless of how many shots he faces, Vasilevskiy needs to rebound in a big way in Game 7.
-Hedman really seemed to struggle. He was on the ice for four of the Penguins' goals, including the empty netter and took the penalty which led to Kessel's goal. It was easily his worst game of the series.
-It's no coincidence that when Letang and Hedman struggle, their teams tend to not do well.
-Head coach Mike Sullivan spoke of his team's top players:
"I think our guys have really bought into it, especially our top guys, you know, the guys -- guys like Sid, [Malkin], Phil Kessel. They're playing away from the puck. They're playing hard away from the puck. They're competing in loose puck battles, and they're back-checking and tracking pucks from behind. They're stopping in the defensive zone to try to protect the scoring area. It's hard to win at this time of year if everybody's not playing defense and not buying in like that. And I think, when your top guys, when they lead the charge in that regard, everyone else follows suit. So I tip my hat to those guys. It's a credit to them that they're playing the game as hard as they are but also as smart as they're playing right now."
-Crosby was asked about himself and others stepping up:
"Yeah, I think -- yeah, we know the circumstances. I think you go out there with the mindset of playing desperate, and I think it's pretty natural when you're in this situation. I think we have confidence in the whole group, no matter who it needs to be to step up. I think everyone played great tonight. Everyone contributes in their own way in a big game like this. You don't have to do anything special. You've just got to do your job. I think that got us this far going into tonight. As for Matt, I think he can speak more about it, but he was solid again. It's a big game, and they're coming hard in the third period and put a lot of pressure on us. Even with their lead, he made some big saves for us."
-Sullivan explained the coach's challenge on Drouin's non-goal:
"I think it was a huge moment in the game. Our video guy saw it. He radioed it to [assistant coach Rick Tocchet], and it was close, but he felt as though it was offside, and it was close enough that we certainly wanted to challenge it. It was a great call by him. It was certainly, I think, a big part of the game. If they get the first goal, it lights up the building, and all of a sudden, momentum gets difficult. So I thought it was a great call by [video coach Andy Saucier], and certainly, I think, our team actually got a boost from it because we knew we had dodged a bullet there."
-Kunitz talked about the team's relief after Drouin's non-goal:
“Maybe calmed the nerves a little. Got us a second chance to go back and just kind of regroup. I didn't know it was going to be offside. I had been on a long shift. I got stuck on my back check and they're going to beat me up. So I'm probably the most thankful for that one to be called off.”
-Hornqvist echoed that sentiment:
“Obviously, that's a huge break for us. If they go up, 1-0, that's a whole different ball game. But the [referees] did a good job. That was offside so it got disallowed and then we got lucky too. We got that five-on-three. [Hedman] shot a slap shot from his own end and shot it over the net. You don't see that too often. When you get those breaks, you have to take advantage of that and we did. That was a big part of our win.”
-Murray dismissed a suggestion that he was recharged after sitting Game 5:
"I don't think it made much of a difference, to be honest. It's just the cards that we're dealt, I guess, and I thought I handled it pretty well. Yeah, like I said, I can't really worry about that stuff. I just have to take things as they come and focus on staying in the moment."
-Hornqvist lauded Murray:
"Matt was huge for us the last 10 minutes. He's 21 years old but he plays like he's 30. We can't say enough about him."
-Rust liked Murray's game:
"He played great. He made a ton of huge saves there to kind of keep it under control in the third which was nice and in the first two periods. It was good to have him in there to calm things there on the back end."
-Sullivan talked about Murray's approach to the game:
"I think that's just part of his DNA. He has a calming influence. He doesn't get rattled. If he lets a goal in, he just continues to compete. That's usually an attribute that takes -- it takes -- usually it takes years to acquire that, and to have it at such a young age is impressive. That's always impressed us about him. Certainly, it's impressed me since I've got to know him and watch him as a goaltender but also as a person. He's a real hard competitor, and I think one of his biggest strengths is just his ability to stay in the moment and not get overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him. He controls what he can. He competes hard, and I think, as I said this morning, I think he has a calming influence on the group."
-Center Matt Cullen spoke to the timing of Crosby's goal:
"That was just an unbelievable goal by him. You've seen him score goals like that before with that power coming through the middle. He made a really nice kind of slash there with the puck and drove to the net and made a great finish. Huge goal for us because we had played really well and had a lot of momentum. To get that one late in the period, that was big.”
-Crosby gave some play-by-play of his goal:
"Yeah, as soon as I turned with the puck, I could tell they were probably in the middle of coming up the gap. So I had a little bit more space. So I just tried to get some speed off that turnover there that [Hornqvist] made, and had a lane and just tried to hit it. That's a great play by him. I mean, if he doesn't back-check, it's probably a nothing play, and they're going back the other way. But he gets that turnover and kind of catch them in between there."
-Hornqvist talked about Crosby's goal:
“That's what the best players in the world do. They can make things happen from nothing. It's a broken play from the neutral zone and then he undressed the other team and put it five hole. We're forutnate to have him and [Malkin] and [Letang] in the lineup. They can make plays from nothing."
-Rust joked about his breakaway acumen:
“I think my breakaway percentage is now 1 for 10, 10 percent. So I still rely on my energy game.”
-Rust gave a breakdown of the goal:
“I think [Kunitz] saw me the whole way. By the time I yelled, the pass was already on its way. I saw the weak side [defense] was there so I tried to take off.”
-Kunitz spoke about Rust's goal:
“He jokes around. I think he said he only scores on one in 10 breakaways. But he needed that one. It was perfect for him to go down. He had a lot of time. Beat the defenseman and made a good move on the goalie. I think when you have speed like [Rust], you make sure you have a full head [of speed] and hang onto that puck and put it on net whenever you can. He does a good job of that.”
-Rust said his goal gave the team some relief:
“Especially them climbing back. There's only two minutes left in the game, so I think it kind of relaxed guys a little bit. Guys could kind of let out a deep breath. Didn't want to let up for the last two minutes but it gave us a little bit more sense of comfort.”
-Hornqvist liked what Sheary brought to his line:
"A lot of speed. He makes a really good play there to the [second] goal. He delayed and found [Letang] and [Letang] found the back of the net. He has a lot of speed and work ethic.”
-Crosby spoke about Sheary:
"Well, speed, that's his biggest thing. That's his game. Like he did on that play, he makes really good plays off the rush in the zone. Made a good play to delay and find [Letang] and join the rush, but his biggest strength is his speed. Whether he's generating stuff from the fore-check or hold on to the puck and driving wide, he pushes guys back. That's a big part of our team game, but a big part of his as well."
-Hornqvist spoke about why he "guaranteed" a Game 7 after Game 5:
"Because we've been in this spot so many times. We weren't in the playoffs [contention] when [Sullivan] took over. We went through a lot. In the last three months I think we've played really good hockey. This group has found a way to win big games. Now, we have to come up with an even bigger one."
-Rust is eager to play Game 7:
"I'm excited. It's one of those things you think about when you're a kid and growing up and playing in those types of game. So I'm really excited."
-Lightning coach Jon Cooper dismissed any suggestion the Penguins' players outplayed his top players:
"They played better than us for two periods. That was it. 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's it. Can't sit here and say one star played better than the other, no. Kessel had a five-on-three goal that was a big goal for him, but I can't say these guys -- they played well as a team. You can't single out guys. It's a team game. So we just -- I said this a few games ago. We have to play better. That's the bottom line. Usually the team that plays better wins."
-The Penguins had a 34-30 lead in shots.
-Lightning center Alex Killorn led the game with five shots.
-Bonino, Letang and Crosby each led the game with four shots.
-Hedman led the game with 25:54 of ice time.
-Letang led the Penguins with 23:48 of ice time.
-The Lightning controlled faceoffs, 39-31 (56 percent).
-Johnson was 11 for 17 (65 percent).
-Crosby was 13 for 25 (52 percent).
-Hornqvist led the game with three blocked shots.
-Coburn led the Lightning with two blocked shots.
-Crosby joined left winger Kevin Stevens (1991 Patrick Division final vs. the Capitals) as the only players in franchise history with three game-winning goals in the same series.
-The only player in NHL history to score four game-winning goals in one series was Islanders hall-of-fame right winger Mike Bossy in the 1983 Wales Conference final vs. the Bruins.
-Murray made some history:
(Photo: Mike Carlson/Getty Images)