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Stanley Cup Final

Chance to win Stanley Cup a huge deal for Penguins

Players are fooling themselves if they think Thursday is 'just another game'

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- There is a script from which one is supposed to read, full of clichés and platitudes, in this situation. It says the team that is one win away from a Stanley Cup championship - in this case, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are up 3-1 on the San Jose Sharks - are looking at the next game as "just another game." They're doing what they always do. They're following their routine. 

To wit, here was Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist on Wednesday, one day before the puck drops on Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports): "It's just a game tomorrow, the same thing as Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5. Just go out there and do the same routines, prepare the same way and when the game starts, I think our key is to have a good start."

That, in a word, is … rubbish.

"Just another game," Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "It is. When you're playing in it you don't really think about the circumstances."

Sure.

Video: Crosby Contributing in Different Ways

In Hornqvist and Dumoulin's defense, they're only saying what they're supposed to say in this situation. They're saying what you might say in the same spot. Well, maybe not that. Maybe you'd be more honest. I would be.

I would go with: "Heck, yeah, it's different. We're one win away from winning the greatest trophy in sports and becoming immortal and never paying for another drink in this city again!"

OK, maybe not that either.

But after Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy started down that path, talking about being a creature of habit and continuing with his routine - chicken is a preference the night before a game, in case you were curious - he was asked whether, in truth, these were all a bunch of … untruths.

"Probably," he said.

He wasn't done. He couldn't help himself.

"But we are letting people outside this room discuss the ramifications of [Thursday] night," Lovejoy said. "We are completely focused on coming out and playing the exact same way we've been playing for the last four months.

"We want to come out and have a great start. We're playing a really good team. We don't want to give them any life. We want to continue to roll our four lines and three 'D' pairings and do everything we can to play a smart brand of hockey, and force our speed upon them."

OK, Ben. You got it.

Video: Crosby and DeBoer push their teams in Gm4 of the SCF

Fortunately, there was someone up for speaking the truth: Penguins center Matt Cullen.

Cullen has been in the NHL since 1997-98, when he debuted for the then Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, a series where they too were up 3-1 before losing Games 5 and 6, and needing a win in Game 7 to take the Cup.

That, perhaps, provides Cullen a bit of perspective. Or maybe he's unwilling to play into the machine of prevarication.

"It's hard to approach these as just another game," Cullen said. "A lot goes into it emotionally. A lot goes into it physically, mentally. It's about managing that emotion. But yeah, I mean, it's not like you can just show up in the morning and say it's another game, [like] Game 40 here in December. We understand how big this game is."

So maybe it's time to acknowledge that. To themselves, to the media, to everyone.

"You can't fool yourself and say, 'This is just another game,'" Cullen said. "That doesn't work. Your body knows it. Everybody knows it. This is a big deal. This is what we've all worked for. You acknowledge that it's a big game, you acknowledge that everybody's got extra excitement and you try to use that to your advantage.

"I think you have to acknowledge it. I think you're kidding yourself if you don't."

(OK, if we're being honest, defenseman Ian Cole also admitted it, right after the Penguins won Game 4, going ahead by that 3-1 lead in the series. As he said, "Everyone is aware that they're going to be playing for their lives. I think if you're not aware, you're kind of a fool. If you say it's just another game, it's no big deal -- as much as you want to say that, it's not the case. It's an elimination game in the Stanley Cup Final.")

Video: SAP Stat of the Night looks at Sharks' chances

And, ultimately, there was a moment with Lovejoy, too, a moment when he couldn't quite keep up the facade. He had just finished talking about playing the same way they'd been playing, having a great start, adding the talking points to his moment of letting his guard down.

Really, though? Really?

"I'm not going to tell you that," he said, refusing to give in, refusing to admit that Game 5 is not like every other game, that there's no way to treat it the same way as they did Game 1 of the first round or a Wednesday game in December or a Saturday in February.

Then he smiled. And the smile said it all.

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