The Pittsburgh Penguins have taken a long, winding road to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
If the Penguins are to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2009, they must get through one last roadblock against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
After a 5-2 win in Game 6 on Tuesday to even the best-of-7 series 3-3, Pittsburgh is prepared to "put a stamp" on its season-long turnaround.
"I don't know that a lot needs to be said," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think the players understand the situation. It's no different than what we just played [Tuesday] night. For us, and this will be our message to them again, it's a great opportunity.
"It's a great opportunity to play at this time of year --- to put a stamp on the playoffs, to establish ourselves as a group and we have to look at it in those terms. And we have to embrace the challenge, embrace the moment and everybody's got to go out there and play hard and, most importantly, play hard for each other."
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Crosby splits D, beats Vasilevskiy
When Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach Dec. 12, Pittsburgh was 15-10-3.
At that time, Sidney Crosby was beginning to end a slump of 15 points and five goals in 23 games through November. Four days before Sullivan's hiring, veteran forward Pascal Dupuis announced his retirement because of a medical condition related to blood clots. Two days after the hiring, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sustained his first of two concussions this season, in his first game under the new coach.
"This group has been through a lot this year," Sullivan said, "and, as I said all along here, we've got a nice chemistry in our room, which is great to see, and I know these guys are going to play hard for one another."
The Penguins lost their first four games under Sullivan. Then things clicked.
With Fleury injured, Pittsburgh recalled rookie goalie Matt Murray from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League; he would allow two goals or fewer in each of his first four NHL starts. About five months later, and after being recalled a second time Feb. 21, Murray is expected to start Game 7 with Fleury as his backup.
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Murray denies Drouin, Palat
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford traded for defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, and forward Carl Hagelin. Each has played a vital role during Pittsburgh's recent run, despite Daley's broken ankle that prematurely ended his playoffs.
"This is not the time to play scared," Hagelin said. "I think when we're being aggressive, playing in the offensive zone, that's when we're at our best. Our team knows that."
Forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl were recalled during the regular season. Sheary is playing left wing alongside Crosby; Rust plays to Evgeni Malkin's right and Kuhnhackl fills out a productive fourth line.
Malkin sustained an upper-body injury March 11, which could have been devastating with the Penguins battling for a playoff spot. Instead, it accidentally formed Pittsburgh's most productive line of Nick Bonino centering Malkin's former linemates, left wing Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel.
All that leads to Thursday.
The Penguins have lost three consecutive Game 7s: 2-1 to the New York Rangers in 2014, 1-0 to the Lightning in 2011, and 5-2 to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. Each was in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is waiting for its first Game 7 win since 2009, when Fleury dove to stop a Nicklas Lidstrom shot and seal a 2-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.
"Just going through different experiences like that, you learn anything can happen," Crosby said, "and you just give yourself the best chance to win by just keeping it simple and not trying to put too much emphasis on kind of a storyline around it."
These Penguins welcome this Game 7 and expect to erase a narrative that has followed them for seven years.
"For us, we accomplished what we set out to do," Sullivan said. "We wanted to win a game and bring it to a Game 7. That's what we did."