After a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins are heading back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since winning it all in 2009.
The Penguins also earned their first Game 7 win on home ice since 1995 Thursday night, which was mostly a dominant effort from the home team. Not even the surprise return of Steven Stamkos could lift Tampa Bay past the overwhelming effort of the Penguins.
Over the years since the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, they’ve heard all of the chatter about how they’re overrated and that they couldn’t get things together in the playoffs. They absolutely rolled in their last two games while facing elimination to quiet the doubters and punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final once again.
Here are eight takeaways from the Penguins’ decisive Game 7 win:
1. The game wasn’t as close as the score suggested: The Lightning ended up losing 2-1, but for anyone that was watching the game, it was plainly evident how much better the Penguins were in all facets of the game. They outshot the Lightning 39-17 in the game, controlled 55 percent of the shot attempts at even strength. The Penguins were the quicker team, the more responsible team and in the end, the victorious team, convincingly.
2. Bryan Rust was an unlikely hero in the first Game 7 of his brief career: After scoring an important insurance goal to help the Penguins seal Game 6, Bryan Rust followed that performance up with what was probably the best game of his entire life.
The 24-year-old rookie scored each of the Penguins’ two goals and made himself noticeable for pretty much the entire game. With blinding speed and good hands, Rust constantly put pressure on the Lightning’s defense. Considering his NHL career spans only 55 regular-season games over the last two seasons and 16 playoff games this year, he was probably one of the last players you’d expect to have an impact in a game this crucial.
Rust became only the third rookie since 1990 and eighth all-time to have multiple goals in a Game 7, joining Brad Marchand and Adam Henrique as the most recent to accomplish that feat.
His first goal came when the Lightning got caught in a line change. The rookie found himself in the middle of the ice with nothing between him and the Tampa net. Before the defensemen could close in, he let go a perfect wrist shot that found the upper right corner of the net.
The second goal (which you can see below) required a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hustle. When a dump-in hit hard off the end boards, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy misplayed it. The puck slid under his glove and out to Rust who found the small opening and shoved the puck into the net.
That goal came just 30 seconds after Jonathan Drouin had tied the game for the Lightning. It would stand as the game-winning goal, making Bryan Rust, a former third-round pick who started this season in the AHL, a household name in Pittsburgh overnight.
3. Steven Stamkos returned, but was this his last game for the Lightning? In a surprise move that turned the Game 7 drama up a few notches, the Lighting’s captain made a surprise return after nearly two full months out of the lineup. Stamkos received clearance from his doctor after recovering from a blood clot and the risk of him playing was considered minimal.
It was great to see No. 91 on the ice, but it was clear that the Lightning could only ease him back into action. His shifts were short and his deployment was measured, but when Stamkos was on the ice, he was engaged and often looked pretty good. He even had a great scoring chance in the second period that ultimately was stopped by Penguins goalie Matt Murray.
The loss forces the Lightning, their fans and Stamkos himself to ponder if that was the last time he will wear the Lightning jersey, though. The 26-year-old sniper is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 unless the team can strike a deal with him. He’ll have endless options as one of the best free agents to hit the open market in years and should expect big time money.
The Lightning have a lot of other players to think about when it comes to new contracts over the next three years that make the Stamkos negotiations even more delicate. The Lightning proved they can win without him, but surely it would be a tough pill to swallow to lose the face of the franchise. This summer will be a challenging one.
4. Sidney Crosby was at his very best in Game 7: Sidney Crosby registered no points in Game 7, but he was the most noticeable player on the ice every shift. He looked like he had some extra jump, as if there wasn’t a chance he was going to allow his team to be eliminated. The Penguins controlled 68 percent of the shot attempts with Crosby on the ice at 5-on-5, and 75 percent in all situations. Almost every shift Crosby took was a dominant one in Game 7.
Oh, and by the way, Crosby had no problem lifting the Prince of Wales Trophy again. If you’ll remember, when the Penguins won the Eastern Conference finals in 2008, Crosby did not touch it. The Penguins lost in the final series against the Detroit Red Wings. The following year, he switched it up, grabbing a hold of the Prince of Wales Trophy, awarded to the conference champion, and the Penguins won the Cup. He went right back to what worked last time.
5. Andrei Vasilevskiy made a mistake, but also was the reason the game stayed close: At just 21 years old, Andrei Vasilevskiy was asked to do a lot. He had to replace a Vezina Trophy finalist and perhaps the team’s MVP to that point in the playoffs. After coming on in relief in Game 1 and in every start he made, he at least gave the Lightning a chance to win the games they played.
That’s especially impressive because he faced an onslaught of shots pretty much every time out including Game 7. He made 37 on a night where it seemed like the Penguins just couldn’t stop shooting. Vasilevskiy faced 21 shots in the second period alone, which is when the Penguins’ two goals came.
Unfortunately, the 37 saves are not going to be remembered as much as that second goal where he misplayed the puck.
Still, over the entirety of the series in such a tough situation, he gave them a chance. There’s going to come a day where this team is going to have to choose between Bishop and Vasilevskiy as their goalie for the foreseeable future and it’s not going to be an easy decision.
6. Matt Murray’s special postseason continues: Matt Murray, who just turned 22 yesterday, now has more postseason starts than he does regular-season starts. He’s been handed a big job, with his understudy being the last guy that won the Cup for the Penguins and one of the team’s more popular players. The kid hasn’t even flinched.
Murray only needed to make 16 saves in Game 7, but his calming presence between the pipes despite his youth has been a major factor in the Penguins getting over the postseason hump after recent years of disappointment.
Over 15 postseason starts, Murray is 11-4 and owns a .924 save percentage. Remember when Mike Sullivan decided to go with Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 instead? That very well could have taken Murray off his game. He responded with two wins in the first two elimination games of his career.
The team around him is very, very good, but Murray gives them one less concern every time they hit the ice.
7. Hey, Phil Kessel will play for the Stanley Cup: Prior to joining the Penguins this season, Phil Kessel had played on some bad Toronto Maple Leafs teams. He was scapegoated for a lot of problems that he probably didn’t create and he also was party one of the most crushing losses in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Remember the 2013 first-round exit to the Boston Bruins? Remember “it was 3-1?” Heartbreaking stuff.
It only got worse from there as the Leafs descended to the league basement and had to start rebuilding.
Now Kessel is a bona fide Conn Smythe candidate on the Eastern Conference champion. What a difference a year makes. Considering all of the grief he took in Toronto, some of it earned, some of it overblown, Kessel is probably right where he belongs now.
On the Penguins, he didn’t have to be the guy, but just another player. It took him a while to adjust to that and he didn’t have a great regular season. However, with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, he is thriving and playing at the level we’ve become much more accustomed to over the recent years of his career.
If there’s one player to feel happy for on the Penguins, Kessel has to be right at the top for what he has had to endure over his career.
8. The Penguins’ toughest test awaits them in the Final: There’s no question that the Penguins are going to be facing their toughest test of the playoffs when they square off with the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Pens have faced a tough road, having to go through the Washington Capitals and the Lightning, so they’ll be battle tested. But San Jose is no joke. They’re averaging 3.50 goals per game, have four of the top five scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and have one of the best shutdown pairings in the game right now.
Also, there’s this to consider:
OK, back to the serious stuff: The Penguins just had back-to-back dominant games, though, and look more than ready for the challenge that awaits them. What a series this final should be.
The Penguins will welcome the Sharks to Pittsburgh for Game 1 on Monday.