The Pens held an optional morning skate on Friday heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay. The only absent players were Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang.
Matt Murray was the first goaltender off the ice and will likely get the start tonight, while Ben Bishop will be in for Tampa Bay down at the other end.
“He’s a big body,” Murray said of his 6-foot-7 counterpart. “He plays a pretty technical game, I think, and uses his size to his advantage. He’s one of my favorites to watch.”
The 29-year-old Bishop is one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy – awarded annually to the league’s best goaltender – along with the netminder Murray dueled in the last round, Washington’s Braden Holtby. And both goaltenders are players that the 21-year-old rookie looks up to.
“They’re both obviously two of the best in the league,” Murray said. “A little bit different in their styles. Bishop is obviously a lot bigger physically. I have a ton of respect for both of them. I idolize both of them to an extent. It’s fun for me to play at the other end from those guys.”
Murray’s got size as well at 6-foot-4, but Bishop has a few inches on him and his stature can be daunting. While Mike Sullivan ceded he certainly takes up a lot of net, the Pens have a plan of attack for trying to get one into the back of it.
“Any time that you have the ability to force them to move it creates opportunities for you,” he said. “So I think we’re going to have to put the puck on the net, we’re going to have to look for opportunities to create that next play and force him to make that next save. That’s usually when opportunities present themselves. But there’s no question he’s a very good goalie.”
SECOND TO NONE
A lot of attention is being paid to the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, and deservedly so. But they’re not letting that affect them.
“We’re going about our business,” Hagelin said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re out there against. We just have to play our game, create offense and play smart in our own end.”
The trio keyed the Penguins’ advancement to the Eastern Conference Final by scoring all four goals and tallying seven points (4G-3A) in the dramatic 4-3 victory in Game 6 against Washington. Bonino was the hero, scoring his third-career playoff overtime goal 6:32 into the extra session. On the night, Kessel (2G-1A) and Hagelin (1G-2A) both had three points.
Hagelin finished Round 2 leading all Penguins players with seven points (3G-4A) in the six games, followed closely by Kessel (2G-4A- 6PTS) and Bonino (2G-3A-5PTS).
From the outside, those numbers stood out even more considering that Sidney Crosby (2A) and Evgeni Malkin (1G-1A) were held to just four total points. But the guys in that locker room aren’t worried whatsoever about the relative lack of production from their franchise centers.
“None of us really realized that ‘Sid’ or ‘Geno’ hadn’t scored like usual,” Bonino said. “It’s the playoffs. Goals are tough to come by. We won the series. I don't think there’s any worry in here. We know all four lines can score any given night. In that series we were able to do it a little bit. But it’s a new series and new guys are going to be scoring.”
That being said, things won’t get any easier for those two. Crosby is usually faced with going up against the other team’s top line and D-pair, and he’ll have a huge (no pun intended) challenge if he faces 6-foot-6 blueliner Victor Hedman. And if he does, the Pens are ready to continue showing their depth.
“Obviously ‘Sid’ gets that top d-pair but we all have to be ready to play against whoever,” Bonino said. “When we do get some favorable matchups, it’s nice to take advantage of them.”
That’s what they’ve been doing ever since the three of them began skating with one another on March 13. The trio has combined for 73 points (28G-45A) in 26 games.
“Sometimes you stumble on things when you explore your combinations,” Sullivan said. “The way that line came together was Geno was playing between Hagelin and Kessel and they were a pretty good line. When Geno got hurt, we moved Bones into that spot. We decided not to mix the group up. We moved ‘Bones’ up into that spot.
“It didn’t click right away. We decided to stay with it to give it a chance and the three players found their way and have become a real good line for us for the last 8-10 weeks of the season and into the playoffs now.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who has been out since undergoing surgery to treat a blood clot in his arm on April 4 and was given a recovery time of 1-3 months, switched out his red no-contact jersey for a regular blue one during his team’s optional morning skate.
However, Stamkos said there is no change to his status, confirming he is still on blood thinners.
“Just giving myself a chance to be ready if that time comes,” he said. “I feel I’m up to game shape. That’s been the plan all along and each day I skate, I handle the puck, shoot the puck things feel better and better. Just giving myself a chance that if that time comes, I’ll be ready.”
When asked if that time could arrive during this series, Stamkos said, “Absolutely.”
“I’m hoping,” he continued. “That’s the frustrating part is just not knowing when. I am hopeful that it can be this series.”
Sullivan on Hagelin: “On the ice, I knew that he can really skate and that’s his obvious competitive advantage. But I’ve always believed in watching him – I coached him with the Rangers – that he’s a guy whose hockey sense was underrated and I think he has the ability to play with top players because he has good hockey sense. And so not only can he chase pucks down and force turnovers, but when he creates those turnovers he has the ability to make the right play. And so that certainly helped me when he became part of our team in trying to put him in a position to be successful.”
Hagelin, on why this team is so special: “We have a good mix of young guys, players that have the hunger to win a Cup and guys who’ve done it before but it was a while back and they want to get back to it. That mix and the fact we’re a loose group. We don’t take anything too seriously or get down on ourselves when we’re not playing the way we want. That’s what I like about this group, we’re resilient. When we’re in the locker room we have fun.”
Cole, on coming off two series against big rivals: “I’ve seen things people are saying, that there’s not much familiarity, there’s not much of a rivalry with the Lightning. But to me, it’s something where they’re the next team that’s in our way. We’re trying to win a Stanley Cup. They’re the next team and they’re obviously a very good team, so the ability to put the whole rivalry thing aside after the past two series and come out and be very business-like and get that emotion ramped back up I think is going to be huge.”
Cullen, on being in this position: “It’s awesome. It’s all you could ever ask for. You get to go through it one time in your career and you want to get back there but you understand how difficult it is to get there. I’m really appreciative. I feel really blessed to be here and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”