On Tuesday night at CONSOL Energy Center the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers will take part in the greatest spectacle in playoff hockey – Game 7.
The only thing that was decided after six games and three wins apiece for Pittsburgh and New York is that a Game 7 is necessary to determine which team will advance to the Eastern Conference Final and which team’s season will come to an end.
“These are the ones you dream about playing. You play them in your backyard,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “These are the ones you’ll remember. Game 51 we won’t remember from this year. This one we will remember and take with us. We have to relish that opportunity to play in games like this, Game 7.”
The first six games of the series had been a roller coaster ride with both teams completely switching sides and outcomes.
The Rangers won the opening game, 3-2 in overtime. The Penguins responded with three straight wins – two of which they shutout the Rangers – to take a 3-1 series lead.
The Penguins missed opportunities in Games 5 and 6 to close out the series and advance.
“We had a chance to close out the series in 5 and 6. We didn’t get it,” Bylsma said. “They’ve won and drawn back to even. We have to get ready to win this thing in seven in CONSOL Energy Center.”
“Whether we won the last three to get to this point or not, it doesn’t really matter,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “It’s what we’re going to do here tomorrow. We have to focus on playing, especially Game 7. All our energy has to go to being our best.”
The most amazing aspect of the series is how drastic the script was flipped after Game 4. Pittsburgh was dominant in Games 2-4. The Penguins outscored the Rangers 9-2 and had a stretch of 145:30 minutes of hockey where they didn’t allow a New York goal. It appeared that the Rangers were already a beaten team.
But in Games 5 and 6 it was the opposite story.
New York overwhelmed the Penguins in both contests, particularly at the start of the games, to skate away with 5-1 and 3-1 victories in Games 5 and 6 respectively.
“You can look at Games 3 and 4 (versus) 5 and 6 as mirror opposites of each other,” Bylsma said. “They got up in games and were confident and in control. Their goaltender played well. That was us in Games 3 and 4. That’s the emotions of the playoffs.”
During the regular season the Penguins won the Metropolitan Division and gained home-ice advantage for at least the opening two rounds of the playoffs. One major benefit to having home-ice advantage is playing at home in the do-or-die Game 7.
Although historically the Penguins are 2-6 all-time at home in Game 7, there is nowhere the team would rather be.
“We have an opportunity of Game 7 tomorrow night in our building in front of our fans,” Bylsma said.
“We play at home. I enjoy playing here,” center Evgeni Malkin said. “We’re ready for the game tomorrow.”
The Penguins have played four Game 7s under Bylsma. They won the first two (at Washington, 6-2, 2009; at Detroit, 2-1, ’09) while losing the last two (vs. Montreal, 5-2, 2010; vs. Tampa Bay, 1-0, 2011). Although the Penguins did play the ’11 series against Tampa Bay without star centers Crosby and Malkin.
Against Washington in 2009, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made a save on Alex Ovechkin in the opening minutes of the game as the Pens cruised to a victory. Against Detroit that same year, Maxime Talbot scored both Pittsburgh goals in a 2-1 Stanley Cup-clinching win.
“There will be a hero and a story in this game,” Bylsma said. “We have to embrace that and go after it. Not just read about it in the paper on Wednesday morning. We have to go out and make it happen and be that hero.”