Pittsburgh Penguins (11-6) at Tampa Bay Lightning (11-5)
May 26, 2016 @ 8:00 PM - Consol Energy Center
TV: NBC Sports Network
Series Tied 3-3
Series Tied 3-3
The Eastern Conference Championship comes down to this - one game, one night, potentially one play that could decide whether the Pittsburgh Penguins or Tampa Bay Lightning advance to the Stanley Cup Finals to face the San Jose Sharks. It's a series that's seen wild changes in momentum back and forth; the Pens seemed ready to cruise after taking a 2-1 series lead in Game 3, and a second straight SCF seemed inevitable for the Lightning after winning Game 5 to go up 3-2. Even Pittsburgh's Game 6 victory to extend the series featured a wild change in momentum. The Penguins started off strong with a 3-0 through two periods, but a bad bounce of Phil Kessel's stick helped propel Tampa Bay to a wild finish that seemed destined for overtime until Bryan Rust's breakaway goal effectively ended the comeback.
Much has been made of Sidney Crosby's playoff production in recent weeks, but he's rebounded nicely after managing just 2 assists in 6 games against the Washington Capitals. Crosby has 5 points (3g, 2a) through the first 6 games of the series, including all 3 game winning goals for the Penguins. Even with the off series vs Washington, he's still 3rd on the team in playoff scoring with 15 points (6g, 9a) in 17 games, and he's not the reason why the Penguins are facing a second straight elimination game despite the hot takes from the punditry trying to claim just that.
Some credit has to go the Lightning themselves, especially the Triplet Line of Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson. Kucherov (2g, 5a) and Palat (2g, 4a) are the top two scorers for the Bolts this series, while Johnson (3g, 1a) finds himself 3rd in that category and 2nd on the team only behind Kucherov for the 2016 playoffs with 17 points. Jon Cooper has reunited the 3 at times this series when Tampa has needed offense, and they've been able to deliver.
Also having themselves big postseasons are a pair of players with something to prove. Phil Kessel was driven out of Toronto following a turbulent tenure with the Maple Leafs that saw all the team's problems placed on his shoulders, but he's the leading scorer for the Penguins with 9 goals and 9 assists, showing that he can indeed be a key piece to a championship contender. On the Lightning side, much has been expected from Jonathan Drouin since the team took him 3rd overall in 2013, but the team has had him on an extremely slow development path that saw him demoted to the AHL midseason and then suspended after refusing to play. Forced into action due to an injury to captain Steven Stamkos, Drouin has treated the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a coming out party, registering 4 goals and 9 assists in 16 games, including 4 points (3g, 1a) in the conference finals.
But if Pittsburgh is going to move on to the Stanley Cup Finals, they'll need to come out controlling the play early like they did in Game 6 and for large stretches of the series, and it certainly wouldn't hurt if the goaltending remained status quo on both sides from the previous game. Andrei Vasilevskiy has had a strong series in relief of Ben Bishop, at times single handedly keeping the Lightning in games they had no business sticking around in, but he didn't have his best outing as the Pens managed to put 4 goals behind him on 34 shots. Likewise, Matt Murray rebounded nicely a game after sitting for Marc-Andre Fleury, stopping 29 of the 31 shots against in getting the win, including 17 of 19 in a hectic 3rd period that saw the Bolts make a frantic push to tie the game. Goaltending and the defensive turnovers/breakdowns that have challenged the netminders has been a huge reason this series will play a seventh game, and if Pittsburgh can neutralize the advantage Tampa has enjoyed in net up to this point, they'll have a good chance to clinch the series and move on.
- With a win in Game 6, Matt Murray became just the 3rd goaltender to reach 10 postseason wins before hitting that mark in the regular season, joining Ken Dryden (1971) and Mike Vernon (1986).
- Sidney Crosby is just the 2nd player in team history to record 3 game winning goals in a series, and he now ranks 3rd all time on the franchise list with 9 playoff GWGs behind only Jaromir Jagr (14) and Mario Lemieux (11).