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Confident Penguins used to overcoming adversity

Pittsburgh still has hand to play facing elimination in Game 6

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Right wing Patric Hornqvist pushed his chips to the center of the table late Sunday after the Tampa Bay Lightning pushed his Pittsburgh Penguins to the brink of elimination with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final.

"There's no doubt in my mind we're going to come back here for a Game 7," Hornqvist said.

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin doubled down Monday before boarding the team's charter flight to Tampa, where they will play Game 6 at Amalie Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"I believe in my team. I believe in myself," Malkin said. "We're coming back to Pittsburgh [for Game 7] for sure."

Signs of confidence from the Penguins in the form of two guarantees of a Game 6 win without either player actually using the word guarantee. The timing of when they made these comments matters as much as the words themselves.

Malkin said what he said after getting asked about his readiness and that of his fellow leaders in Pittsburgh for Game 6.

Hornqvist said what he said after getting asked what he and his teammates can do to get past a tough loss in Game 5, the Penguins' first after leading going into the third period this season. They were 46-0-0 in those situations.

Neither player was provoked or coaxed into using this language. They could have opted not to give the Lightning any of that so-called bulletin-board material. But that's not what they were going for in the first place.

Video: Sullivan on defense, losing 4-3 in overtime

Malkin and Hornqvist didn't say what they said to get headlines or to get under the skin of their opponent. They said it because they believe it, because they believe in themselves and the resiliency within their group. They have months of proof to fall back on.

Nobody thought the Penguins would be anywhere close to the Eastern Conference Final two months into the season, when coach Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was basically and shockingly a slightly above-average player.

Despite how well they were playing, it was hard to think the Penguins could overcome the loss of Malkin to an injury March 11 that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season.

It was even harder to see how they'd be a contender in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sustained his second concussion of the season March 31.

It was impossible to view them as a contender when Fleury's backup, rookie Matt Murray, sustained an upper-body injury in the Penguins' final regular-season game, leaving third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff to be the starting goalie against the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round.

Right wing Phil Kessel struggled and was criticized heavily for being a flop for the first three-quarters of the season. Defenseman Kris Letang joined Crosby on the list of struggling Penguins for the first two-plus months of the season.

Minor-league call-ups like forwards Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust became regulars because the regulars that were in those spots weren't good enough.

Just this past Friday the Penguins lost minute-munching defenseman Trevor Daley for the rest of the playoffs because of a broken ankle. His replacement, Olli Maatta, missed three games against the Washington Capitals in the second round because of an upper-body injury, and was scratched for Games 2, 3 and 4 against the Lightning because he wasn't good enough in Game 1.

"I don't know that there's a team in the League that's faced more adversity than this team from the start of training camp until where we are today," Sullivan said.

In fairness, the Penguins just have to look at their opponent in this series to find one. The Lightning have battled as much or more adversity, especially because of injuries and health scares to significant players.

But this isn't about the Lightning's resiliency anymore. They've proven it by rallying from a 2-1 series deficit to take a 3-2 lead. It's up to the Penguins to match them.

"These guys have shown their resilience time and time again," Sullivan said. "Probably now it'll be tested more than ever. But I certainly believe in this group we have. I think we've got a great group that's going to respond the right way."

It starts with Sullivan and the massive decision he has to make. Will it be Fleury or Murray as the Penguins starting goalie in Game 6? Sullivan said he'll make a decision Tuesday morning.

He chose Fleury for Game 5, giving him his first start since March 31, but his rust showed and he allowed four goals on the final 14 shots he faced.

Murray is the goalie that got the Penguins this far, and even though he has an .892 save percentage in his past six starts, he should be given the chance to get them back in this series. He is 3-0 with a .929 save percentage in starts after a loss this postseason.

But the goalie won't matter unless the Penguins' big guns come out shooting in Game 6. Crosby, Letang and Malkin came up too small in Game 5.

Letang was a minus-4 and was on the ice for a team-high 24 even-strength shot-attempts against.

Crosby was on for 18 even-strength shot-attempts against, tied for the most among Penguins forwards with Hornqvist. Crosby was on the ice with Letang, Hornqvist and defenseman Brian Dumoulin for the Lightning's tying goal at 16:44 of the third period and the winner 53 seconds into overtime.

Malkin had an assist but two shots on goal and was passive on the power play, a problem the Penguins had in general Sunday.

"Tampa is a good team. It's a very good team," Malkin said. "But if we play right for all 60 minutes, we win."

The pot is big, the stakes high. The Penguins still have a hand to play. They're certain it's a winning hand. All they can do now is show their cards and prove it.

"It's a great opportunity for our team to put a stamp on these playoffs," Sullivan said.

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