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5 Keys: Lightning at Penguins, Game 7

Young goalies, top defensemen likely to determine Cup finalist

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). The best-of-7 series is tied 3-3. The winner advances to face the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final, beginning Monday.

Here are 5 keys for Game 7:

1. BEST OF THE BEST

The Penguins' big guns came to play in their 5-2 victory in Game 6 on Tuesday with Sidney Crosby (one goal, one assist), Phil Kessel (one goal), Evgeni Malkin (one assist) and Kris Letang (one goal) getting on the score sheet. In their 4-3 overtime win in Game 5, it was Nikita Kucherov (two goals, one assist), Tyler Johnson (one goal, one assist), Alex Killorn (one goal) and Ondrej Palat (one assist) leading the way for the Lightning.

Crosby has scored the winning goal in all three of the Penguins' victories in the series. Johnson has two game-winners for the Lightning.

Although depth is important, coaches often talk about needing their best players to be their best players for a team to win. That has been the case throughout this series. Game 7 likely will be no different.

"You know the situation. You know what's on the line," Crosby said Thursday. "Now you just want to make the most of the opportunity. That's the way I look at it. I think as a group we're excited for this opportunity that we have."

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Crosby splits D, beats Vasilevskiy

2. START STRONG

The Penguins have scored first and have led or been tied for every minute of four of the past five games. Although the Lightning played a strong first two periods in winning 4-3 in Game 4 and demonstrated their ability to come from behind in their overtime victory in Game 5, they have been chasing the Penguins for most of the series.

Doing that again in trying to win a Game 7 on the road might be asking too much.

"We have to play better in the first and second period," Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek said. "You saw how good we were in the third [in Game 6], but it was too late. And if we can bring that energy and desperation through the first two [periods], we'll be good."

3. YOUNG GOALIES

Penguins goaltender Matt Murray turned 22 on Wednesday. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is 21. Murray has started 14 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his career. Vasilevskiy has started six. Neither has started a Game 7.

They've done a remarkable job of standing up to the pressure so far, but how will they fare with a trip to the Cup Final on the line?

"I think you'll get the same from Matt," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "That's how we've come to know him. That's how he is. He takes each game as it comes and he controls what he can. He's a great competitor. He's got a great makeup. I believe he's going to continue to do what he's done for us this whole postseason."

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Vasilevskiy covers puck off deflection

4. LETANG VS. HEDMAN

As expected, the top defensemen have been pivotal to the success or struggles of each team throughout the series. Letang had a rough Game 5 and was on the ice for all four Lightning goals. It was no coincidence he rebounded with a strong Game 6 and the Penguins won.

It was Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman's turn to struggle in Game 6; he was on the ice for all four of the Penguins' even-strength goals. He'll need to bounce back for the Lightning to do the same.

5. EMBRACE THE MOMENT

Even the best players get nervous for big games like this one, but those who excel in them feed off the positive energy and don't allow what is at stake to become a pressure that weighs them down. After defeating the New York Rangers 2-0 in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden, the Lightning talked about how calm they were in the locker room before the game and on the bench during it. That allowed them to maintain their composure and to keep playing the same way in a game that was scoreless through two periods.

The Penguins hope to do the same Thursday.

"It's the same hockey game. Both teams have the same game plan," Letang said. "The only little difference is you have to stay calm and control your emotions. Whatever happens on the ice, you keep playing."

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