Penguins Advance to the Stanley Cup Final With Game 7 Win

Tension.

It was the nervous kind as the clock ticked down at Consol Energy Center as the seconds bled off the clock slowly. It felt like the clock was ticking up at times. The faithful could sense the desired result for their Penguins with every passing minute, especially inside the final three. Fans were starting to stand then.

Time out.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper used his with 44.2 seconds left to draw up the perfect play to extend a season. The net was empty at the other end.

Faceoff. Nick Bonino, Tyler Johnson.

The latter wins it, but the puck is soon cleared out of the zone.

The former sees an opportunity to win it after the Lightning brought it in offside, and misses the net from his own blueline. Icing. No rest for bruised and broken.

Rematch.

It’s won to the corner by the man who iced it. Another clearing attempt went into the bench.

10.4 on the clock.

Bonino wins his second in a row. The puck is held at the boards behind the goal.

A horn.

Penguins Advance to the Stanley Cup Final With Game 7 Win

Just under three hours before this course of events, the lights were dimmed at Consol Energy Center and both teams were headed out onto the battlefield to warm-up their weapons. Two rookie goaltenders led their squads out onto the sheet where one team would be left standing to fight another war in the Stanley Cup Final. Matt Murray turned 22 two days ago and celebrated early with a win the day before in Tampa to get his squad here. Andrei Vasilevskiy, 21, throughout the war showed tremendous poise from his KHL days and Stanley Cup Final appearance last season through the first six games.

Following right behind the latter, a familiar face on the mend collapsed the puck structure on the bench for his teammates to collect and perform their individual warmup rituals. It was captain Steven Stamkos, taking the warmup for the first time since a blood clot diagnosis kept him out since March 31st. His status was reported as “unchanged,” according to head coach Jon Cooper and General Manager Steve Yzerman, but it was soon clear.

He was in.

It was a big boost for the Lightning to have their captain, though probably not at 100%, have a presence on the ice, but the Penguin faithful provided a boost themselves as in unison they sang the National Anthem and a chant all too familiar, “Let’s Go Pens!”

A back and forth series with neither team winning consecutive games was about to meet its climactic end.

As the puck was first dropped it was clear the Penguins wanted to establish their up tempo game that has carried them on this incredible run under Sullivan early on. Both teams were blocking shots and missing the net, indicative of the stage and how tight both teams wanted to play to make sure each got off to a start that would land them in a very good position. Murray and Vasilevskiy were on their games early on, with each making signature saves, the former on defenseman Andrej Sustr and the latter on a Matt Cullen breakaway. From there, the Penguins started to open the game up, following a series-long theme outshooting the Lightning 5-2 the final ten minutes, winning 10 of 17 draws and four of five to end the stanza. But, the scoreboard did not change.

Just over two minutes into the second, the Penguins utilized a weapon of their’s that was refined and built since December, the stretch pass. Olli Maatta, in for the injured Trevor Daley, sent one from his own left face-off circle to Evgeni Malkin. He then dropped it to Chris Kunitz who saw his far linemate coming into the play. It was Game 6 hero Bryan Rust. Charging down the slot, he sent a missile into the top right corner over Vasilevskiy’s glove to net the icebreaker for his third goal in two nights.

It would be just the beginning for Pittsburgh’s attack. Firing the next four shots on net, they nearly made it a two-goal lead when Crosby picked up a rebound at the side of the net. On his backhand, he protected the puck and came across the slot trying to sneak it past the Tyumen native’s pad, but with lightning-quick reflexes (sorry), he prevented the Penguin captain from igniting the crowd and giving Pens’ radio play-by-play man Mike Lange a chance to ring out “Slap me silly, Sidney” across radio waves around the fanbase. Like he had all series long, Tampa’s young goaltender kept his team in the game. They ended up responding just five minutes later despite the Penguins controlling the play. 21-year old Jonathan Drouin sped his way through the zone, backed up, and cut across the top of the slot.

He found daylight on Murray’s far side, and the goal light turned red. His 5th of the series knotted the game up and silenced a once-raucous crowd and instilled some doubt. The Lightning have come back like this before throughout the past week, after all.

However, tonight was different. The tie lasted just 30 seconds, and the kid from Pontiac, Michigan who was trying to make the team in training camp had struck yet again. Defenseman Ben Lovejoy looked to shoot for a rebound off the boards and he got the hometown bounce. The puck caromed off the back of the net, and Rust saw an opening in Vasilevskiy’s wall. He knocked the disc through the tunnel and the flashing red light at the end of it soon followed. The 24-year old rookie had his fourth in two games and the Penguins had the lead again. They nearly made it a multi-goal lead, but Victor Hedman made sure that the game stayed tied kneeling down to block a sure goal after the Penguins started to come on.

The turnaround quickly jumpstarted the team, as despite failing on three power play chances, they killed off one against and outshot the Lightning 21-5 stifling every attack Tampa Bay threw at them. Game 5 heroes Nikita Kucherov and Johnson combined for two shots in the game with the former getting both. No one on the team had more than two shots. Drouin’s only shot came from his goal. Every entry the Penguins were ready to take the body (30 hits), block shots (17), or rush the forwards. They took this approach into the final 20 minutes of play with a chance to get back to a place many of their faithful that wore gold in unison thought they would never get to in December when Mike Johnston was fired.

Eight of Pittsburgh’s 17 blocks came in the final period, none more cringeworthy than Bonino’s which struck him square in the knee cap in the middle of a rare Tampa surge 3:25 in. The clock kept moving as the Penguins continued to grind out their trip to the Final. Any chance Pittsburgh had to ice the game, Vasilevskiy continued to stand tall. He would finish with 37 saves, his fourth 35+ save effort of the series. Would it be enough? Brian Boyle nearly supported his goaltender with a game-tying marker, but he could not finish with Kris Letang backtracking him the whole way through.

The Lightning would get just two shots to Murray after that chance. Winning five of the next six face-offs, Sullivan’s group preferred to clear the puck rather than take chances offensively. The tension rose with every passing minute knowing the Lightning’s recent history with tying games late.

But this was not Tampa’s night.

Cue the series of events, three hours from the end of the anthem.

Hagelin has the puck after a ricochet off of the boards that went past Stamkos at the point, watching helplessly and appearing to be protesting the man with the puck ice the game and possibly his last seconds as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The former Michigan captain buries it into the empty cage with five seconds left. The series is over.

Or is it? All of a sudden, the play was blown dead, and time was put back on the clock to give Tampa 10.4 seconds to knot the game up and extend their season. On the clearing attempt, the puck hit Lovejoy’s stick along the boards while he was sitting on the bench accidentally, allowing Hagelin to skate and score.

So, it was one more duel with Bonino in the dot.

It’s drawn back behind Murray’s crease.

A sea of gold erupts in a combination of exhalation, joy, and relief.

The Penguins were the 2016 Eastern Conference Champions, dethroning the team that took that title last season. Handshakes soon followed a team that mobbed their goaltender who received a late birthday present, a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Outshooting Tampa Bay 269-178, the Penguins overall proved that they were the better team in the series. It just goes to show how good Vasilevskiy was in relief of Ben Bishop, signifying a bright future in the NHL for him and just another experience to put under his impressive resume for his age.

It wasn’t enough against this team, however, that has played inspired hockey since March forging a mission that has been eerily similar to their 2009 Stanley Cup Championship drive. Their head coach was fired mid-season, and the replacement led them to the Final. Those were Dan Bylsma‘s Penguins, this is Mike Sullivan’s group. Captain Sidney Crosby touched the Prince of Wales Trophy taking it off the ice with his team that year after forgoing that process in 2008, and it paid off superstition-wise. He did so again tonight, posing with Malkin and Patric Hornqvist.

These two groups are similar in story, but this group has gotten it done with youth and speed. Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Tom Khunackl, Rust, and Daley were not on the team when the season began. General Manager Jim Rutherford made the acquisitions and call-ups and it was an integral part of the team’s turnaround.

The 2015-16 season seemed like it would be short for this edition of Penguins. Now, they’ll be playing another unlikely candidate from the West in San Jose for Lord Stanley’s Chalice in a year of the underdog.

It’s likely that these Penguins wouldn’t have it any other way.

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