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Pens Discard Caps to Keep Their Dream Alive

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The dream is alive.

The Pens hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions, something that hasn't been done in the NHL in two decades, survived a do-or-die Game 7 in Washington against the President's Trophy-winning Capitals in a 2-0 victory at Verizon Center on Wednesday night.

"I don't know if I can say enough about this group of players," said head coach Mike Sullivan, who surpassed Scotty Bowman for second place on the team's all-time postseason wins list at 24. "We've been through so much since I've been here. They always find a way to respond the right way to any of the challenges and adversities that this league throws at us. They did it a gain tonight.

"These guys are at their best when the stakes are high. That might have been the best game that we've played in the playoffs to this point. I thought that was the closest thing to the Penguins' identity that we've seen in the playoffs so far."

The next challenge will be the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final. But that's a topic for another day.

For tonight the story is about these resilient Penguins, who have once again managed to overcome several injuries to key positions and back-to-back losses to vanquish the NHL's regular-season champs in a dramatic and memorable Game 7.

"I thought we did a great job of regrouping," said captain Sidney Crosby, who helped set up the Pens' first goal of the game. "That was one of our better games that we've played. It was the right time to have that one."

No player better personifies the Pens resilience than their goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury was called into duty just minutes before the postseason began after Matt Murray, who led the team to the Cup title last year, suffered an injury in warmups.

Since that time Fleury has been the team's most valuable player. With the way the Caps played in Game 7, the Pens' only chance at survival would be for Fleury to have the game of his life.

Fleury had the game of his life.

"I'm a little tired," he said with a smile, of course. "It's been a hard series."

It's not surprising Fleury was tired. Words cannot justly describe the performance put on by the franchise's all-time leader in playoff win. Fleury added to his record total, which now stands at 61, by stopping all 29, fittingly, shots against to record his franchise-record ninth playoff shutout.

None better than his late second period denial of an Alex Ovechkin one-timer in the slot. The NHL's greatest goal scorer was staring down an empty net, only to have Fleury stretch out and get the shaft of his stick on the puck.

What made the contest even more remarkable was how the Pens rebounded following two losses, including a lackluster effort in a 5-2 Game 6 loss at home. The team's confidence, however, never wavered. 

As winger Patric Hornqvist said before the game, "We have to come up with our best effort and I know we're going to have a bounce back game here."

Added Hornqvist: "We have to embrace the moment. We haven't played our best the last two games and we all know it. We have to come out as a new team and play the right way and really enjoy it out there. It's going to be a fun game. You can write your own legacy here."

Hornqvist followed his own advice by writing a 2-0 lead for the Pens with his fourth goal of the playoffs early in the third period.

As far as Pittsburgh's legacy, its dominance of Washington is again the law of the land. Order to the hockey universe is restored.

The Pens are now 9-1 in 10 lifetime playoff series against Washington. They also improved to 4-0 against the Capitals in Game 7s, including 3-0 in the nation's capital.

But this series was as close as it gets. These are two evenly matched teams, which is why it took seven games to decide. The difference between the two was a matter of inches.

But that inch, and this series, belongs to the black and gold.

"The Washington Capitals are a very good hockey team," Sullivan said. "They're well coached. They're a deep team. They challenged us all night long, the whole series for the last two weeks.

"I can't tell you how proud of our group of players and continuing to have that stick-to-it-iveness and finding ways to have success."  

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