Thoughts and observations from the Pens' 2-0 Game 7 victory from the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C...
* Marc-Andre Fleury has played a few Game 7s in his career. This one was his best. He was unbelievable in this game to get the shutout. I mean, the quality of saves he had to come up with were just ridiculous. He was locked in right from the start and weathered an early storm from the Caps that allowed his team to settle into the game and take over from there. He continued to make clutch and timely saves throughout the night. And the Caps threw absolutely everything they had at him. Not just pucks, but bodies too. He had so much going on around his net, but managed to stay calm and steady and get the job done - just like he's done all series and all playoffs long.
* It helped that the Pens did a much better job in front of him. First, their breakouts were much improved. Instead of forcing it up the walls, they took that extra second or two to find an outlet in the middle of the ice, or protect the puck until another outlet opened up. Second, they got back to cutting down those second and third opportunities. The forwards did a tremendous job of getting back and stick checking and thwarting any good looks. Overall, they just went out there and executed.
* I think it all came down to desperation. The Pens had it and it allowed them to make those plays. As Sam Kasan wrote yesterday, "Every play takes on so much more importance, every shift, every hit, every shot, every save. Any little play could be the difference between winning and losing, between advancement and extinction." The Pens dug deep and made sure they took care of every little detail in the game. And after those initial few minutes, even though the Caps had their chances, it felt like the Pens were in complete control of this game. They were so composed and just completely locked it down, especially in the third.
* Overall, to a man, every player starting with Fleury and continuing on throughout the lineup came ready to play their best game. They knew Game 6 wasn't anywhere close to that, and Patric Hornqvist said this morning that they would have a bounce-back game. It says so much about this group that they had complete confidence in themselves and each other to produce an effort like that. I asked him about it afterward, and he said, "We've been through so much the last two years here. Injuries, it's been up and down, almost not making the playoffs and then we go and win the Cup and now we have our backs against the wall and we come up with our best game so far this season. That's a lot of character and we trust in ourselves in here."
* Speaking of Hornqvist, he and Bryan Rust continued their clutch playoff scoring. Rust opened the scoring (which stood as the game-winner) to give him eight goals in 12 career playoff elimination games. He now has three goals in two different Game 7s. Hornqvist has also had some big goals in his playoff career with the Pens, and scored Pittsburgh's second of the night to give them a cushion.
* Both of those scoring sequences started with a defenseman holding the blue line and keeping the puck in the offensive zone. It was Ian Cole on Rust's goal and Justin Schultz on Hornqvist's goal. Those goals don't happen without those plays. Overall, tremendous job by the blue line to be more aggressive and make things happen, and come up with their strongest performance of the playoffs without Kris Letang and Trevor Daley.
* I really can't say enough about Mike Sullivan's coaching decisions. He knows exactly what to do to spark his team. The biggest change Sullivan made was dressing Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson for Carl Hagelin and Tom Kuhnhackl, and it ended up working out. Rowney in particular had a great game. He was tremendous on the penalty kill, and had a couple quality scoring chances. As Matt Cullen said after the game, "As a group, Sully and all of us, we've been through a lot in a short period of time. X's and O's, he's one of the very best coaches I've played for and I think just motivationally he does a heck of a job and I think he's got a real feel for the pulse of our group."
* And finally, speaking of the penalty kill, it has been terrific for some time now, and they got the job done again tonight - stifling both of Washington's efforts. The Caps had their zone time and their looks during those man-advantages, but for the most part the Pens got a lot of clears and made them go the length of the ice to retrieve the puck.