The Pens’ leaders stepped up in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, that’s for sure.
In Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at Amalie Arena that forced a Game 7 on Thursday at CONSOL Energy Center, they could be found all over the scoresheet – and the stats speak for themselves.
For example, Phil Kessel opened the scoring with a huge power-play goal – assisted by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. After finishing minus-4 in Game 5, Kris Letang responded by being on the ice for four of his team’s tallies – putting one in the back of the net himself.
And of course, Crosby scored an absolutely clutch marker with 25.4 seconds left in the second period that stood as the eventual game-winner, his third of the series.
He retrieved the puck in the neutral zone and turned up the ice, first shaking off Ondrej Palat, skating right around Anton Stralman with Victor Hedman bearing down and beating Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole with a quick shot.
“No. 1, the timing of the goal is huge, right at the end of the period,” Sullivan said. “I think you saw his will and his determination in that goal. And when Sid's playing that way, I think it certainly gives our bench a big lift. Obviously, it was a game-changing goal for us.”
But what isn’t being talked about nearly as much is the play Patric Hornqvist made to set it up. The heart-and-soul winger backchecked relentlessly to steal the puck at the blue line and get it over to his captain, who took it from there.
“That's a great play by him. I mean, if he doesn't backcheck, it's probably a nothing play, and they're going back the other way,” Crosby said.
“That goal doesn’t happen if ‘Horny’ doesn’t track it from behind and strip the puck and give Sid an opportunity to do what he does,” Sullivan agreed. “So it’s a lot of those subtleties of the game that help our team win and I think we saw that last night in a number of different circumstances on both sides of the puck.”
That goal from Crosby put the Pens up 3-0, a lead the Bolts would cut to 3-2 in the third period. But a breakaway goal from Bryan Rust – which he joked put his percentage in those situations at 1-for-10 – and an empty-netter from Nick Bonino, paired with clutch goaltending from Matt Murray and strong defense from the guys in front of him, allowed the Pens to finalize the victory.
“You want to produce, especially this time of year,” Crosby said. “You want to contribute. But I think we have a lot of belief, a lot of trust in everybody. It’s worked out that way but I think we just really believe in one another and believe that someone will step up to get that big play whether it’s a goal or a blocked shot, anything. That’s what you need.
“I think everyone played great (in Game 6). Everyone contributes in their own way in a big game like this. You don't have to do anything special. You've just got to do your job. I think that got us this far.”
And it’s what they believe will continue to move them forward in Game 7.
“We don’t expect any one of our players to carry the load for this team,” Sullivan said. “This team has had success because it’s been a team and everyone participates and contributes to helping us win. That’s the message to our players. Let’s just play the game the right way and be yourself, play to your strengths and that’s what we expect all our players to do.”
That’s what they expect of themselves as well.
“Just going through different experiences like that you learn anything can happen and you just give yourself the best chance of winning by just keeping it simple and not trying to put too much emphasis on the storyline around it,” Crosby said.
“We’re in the exact same situation we were last night. That’s the bottom line. You saw the way that we played and reacted to that, so I would expect much of the same tomorrow.”
Note: The Pens had a day off on Wednesday and flew back to Pittsburgh from Tampa Bay.