PITTSBURGH -- After seven years, the Pittsburgh Penguins are returning to the Stanley Cup Final.
With a 2-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at Consol Energy Center on Thursday, Pittsburgh earned a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time.
But in a series when the Lightning were without goalie Ben Bishop and captain Steven Stamkos for most of it, some doubt surrounded the Penguins. But that feeling did not seem to creep into the locker room.
Here are 5 reasons the Penguins advanced to the Stanley Cup Final:
1. CAPTAIN CLUTCH
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored three goals against the Lightning, but it was more about the timing of those goals.
His first came 40 seconds into overtime of Game 2. Then he scored the game-winning goal two days later in Game 3 to help the Penguins build a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
In Game 6, Crosby had the primary assist on Phil Kessel's first-period 5-on-3 goal. Crosby's second-period goal made it 3-0, and that held as the game-winner in a 5-2 victory that forced Game 7. Crosby is the second Penguins player with three game-winning goals in one playoff series, joining Kevin Stevens, who did it against the Washington Capitals in the 1991 Patrick Division Final, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"It hasn't been easy," Crosby said. "I think throughout the playoffs we've played different styles with different teams here and have been able to adjust."
Video: TBL@PIT, Gm2: Crosby goes top-shelf to win it in OT
2. PHIL THRILLED
Kessel had been Pittsburgh's most consistent offensive performer through two rounds, and that continued in the conference final. He scored in four of the seven games to push his Penguins-best playoff goal total to nine. He has 18 points, seven more than his previous playoff high, in 18 games.
"I feel the joy," Kessel said. "I don't know what to say."
3. SURVIVED GOALIE CONTROVERSY
The goaltender debate between rookie Matt Murray and veteran Marc-Andre Fleury has followed the Penguins since Game 3 of the second round, when Fleury dressed for the first time since sustaining a concussion March 31.
The debate reached its peak midway through the conference final, after Murray allowed four goals on 30 shots in two periods in Game 4 and was pulled in the 4-3 loss. Fleury made his first start of the postseason in Game 5 but allowed four goals on 25 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan went back to Murray for Game 6, and he responded by allowing three goals on 47 shots in Games 6 and 7 to help the Penguins win the series.
"I keep saying this is my first time going through something like this," Murray said. "So it's a lot of new experiences. But I've said it all along, I'm just trying to enjoy myself."
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Murray denies Drouin, Palat
4. POSSESSION DOMINATION
The Penguins controlled much of the series by pinning the Lightning deep in their end for long stretches. That was most evident in Game 7, when Pittsburgh held a 39-17 shot advantage.
The Penguins outshot the Lightning in all seven games but were unable to fully demonstrate their dominance on the scoreboard because of the play of 21-year-old Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. But ultimately their possession advantage proved to be too much for the Lightning.
5. RUST STOLE THE SHOW
Forward Bryan Rust scored three goals in the conference final, in Games 6 and 7.
He scored with 2:08 remaining in Game 6 to put Pittsburgh up 4-2 after Tampa Bay had cut its lead to one. Then in Game 7, he scored both goals in the 2-1 victory.