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Pens' experience key to Game 7 mindset

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens have been here before.

Here being a winner-takes-all Game 7. 

After six contests, the Pens and Ottawa Senators need one more game to find out which team will represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. That one more game, which will be the third Game 7 in the last two seasons for Pittsburgh, will take place Thursday night at 8 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

The Pens will draw upon those previous experiences heading into their current do-or-die affair.

"Those experiences will serve our players well," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "It's not something new to them. These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions. They know what to expect."

For a refresher on Game 7s, the Pens only need to look two weeks back at their series against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. The Second Round series required seven games. In that definitive Game 7 contest, which was played in Washington, the Pens advanced with a 2-0 victory. 

Last year, the Pens were in this exact same circumstance: playing a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final at home. In that game the Pens triumphed, 2-1, thanks to a pair of goals by Bryan Rust and a full-team effort that overwhelmed the Lightning.

"I remember a lot (from last year)," said goaltender Matt Murray, who was between the pipes against Tampa Bay in that Game 7 win. "I'll draw on that to prepare for this one. Everything comes down to one game. You take it one shift at a time, one save at a time and focus on what you can control."

The Pens had a chance to end their current series in Game 6 in Ottawa on Tuesday night. Despite a dominating performance by Pittsburgh, the Sens escape playoff extinction thanks to the spectacular play of their goaltender Craig Anderson, who made 45 saves in the contest.

In spite of the setback, the Pens will need to turn the page mentally and refocus on the game in front of them. Even though the game is won and lost on the ice, really it all begins with the mental preparation. After all, the body follows the mind.

"It's a certain mental toughness or discipline of mind that is critically important when playing in the playoffs," Sullivan said. "We've got to have a short memory whether it's good or bad, whether we win a game or lose a game.

"We've had a lot of practice at it over the last couple of years. There's no doubt in my mind certainly that our guys understand it and they'll have the right frame of mind."

Matt Cullen, a 19-year NHL veteran, has played in plenty of Game 7s throughout his career, six if you're counting at home. He even scored a pair of goals for Carolina in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 against Edmonton to help the Hurricanes win their first NHL championship.

"You don't forget (Game 7s)," said Cullen, who ois 6-0 in his career in Game 7s. "They stand out. It's a different feel than any other game you play. They are as fun as it gets.

"These are the games that when you're a kid playing in the backyard, you're playing Game 7. For us as players, this is what it's all about. It's a different level of intensity, it's a different level of excitement."

Cullen understands the highs and lows of playoff hockey all too well. The 40-year-old feels this current Pens team is the best equipped that he's seen in dealing with such emotional rides.

"We've been there before. We know what to expect from our group," Cullen said. "We have a comfort level with our plan and the way that we need to play. These are the fun games to play.

"This group has stood out to me with the feel that we go into a Game 7, with that confidence, with that hunger to go get it."

The Pens' hunger and mental toughness is part of the reason they've been able to overcome so much adversity over the past two seasons - whether it be injuries or poor play or personal challenges - and still find a way to be successful.

Sullivan expects them to rise up to the challenge once again.

"What I love about our team is that we've always shown an ability to respond," Sullivan said. "We've had a lot of high-stakes games here over the last couple of years, certainly in my tenure here, our players to a man have responded the right way.

"That experience will serve them well, but we've got to go out and earn Game 7."

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