When the Pens showed up to the rink this morning, they knew they weren’t coming in for just another game.
They’re aware that it’s not, as Matt Cullen said, Game 40 in December. It’s Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, and if the Pens win, they will raise the Stanley Cup over their heads in front of their hometown fans for the first championship won in Pittsburgh since 1960.
“You can’t fool yourself and say this is just another game,” Cullen said. “It doesn’t work. Your body knows it. Everybody knows it. This is a big deal. This is what we’ve all worked for. We understand how big this game is, and it’s exciting. We’ve worked our butts off to get here, and we’ve gone through a lot to get here.”
This team, as Mike Sullivan said, has gone through more adversity than arguably any other team in the league this year. I asked a few guys to reflect on what they felt was the biggest challenge they experienced this season…
- Matt Cullen: “That stretch when we went through the coaching change, we had a lot of turnover. The first part of the season was awfully tough. We never really found our stride. We never really found our game. That Tampa series we really found ourselves. We were up 2-1 and everything started looking pretty good, then all of a sudden you find yourself down 3-2. That was a big test for our team and I was really proud the way we played when we were down. Those last two games were up with the best games we’d played all playoffs. I was happy the way our team responded to that adversity.”
- Patric Hornqvist: “I think when Sullivan first took over and we lost four in a row. That was tough for us. We played better but we weren’t good enough. Just before Christmas we beat Columbus on an empty-netter. After that everything fell in place and we’ve gotten better every single day. Those big trades, too. This team has been through a lot and everybody has found their role. Things don’t fix overnight when you change coaches. After the All-Star break things started coming together and we started playing the hockey we wanted. That’s why we’re here today.”
- Eric Fehr: “Probably when we were on our winning streak there at the end of the season. We were trying to make our push for the playoffs, and ‘Geno’ got hurt in Columbus. That was probably one of the biggest things. We were just starting to roll and he goes down. The season could have gone either way at that point. A lot of guys had to step up. I think that’s when Bonino had his first chance with Phil and ‘Haggy.’ That was probably the time.”
- Ian Cole: “It’s been the whole season. We’ve been through adversity. We’ve been through tough times. At the beginning of the year we tended to get frustrated if things weren’t going our way. If we had the lead and they scored a goal, we would collapse and they’d come back and end up winning the game. We weren’t good at handling the pressure. Throughout the course of the year we handled situations a lot better. We really learned some hard lessons. That’s been benefitting us for sure.”
- Kris Letang: “I don’t see one in particular. Everybody kind of counted us out of it. There were tons of moments. When ‘Geno’ went down or when Daley went down in the playoffs. Overall it’s been a season that everybody had to step up at some point in the season to give our team a win.”
Now, after all of that, the Pens have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. But they realize they haven’t actually won it yet.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done so far, but we’re not there yet,” Cullen said.
The challenge, he said, will be managing their emotions and trying to stay in the moment.
“That’s the test for all of us, to try and keep your focus right here,” Cullen said. “Obviously you’re close to the end of the road here. It’s exciting, but I think it’s one of those things where it’s a balance of using that excitement as energy and using that in the game as opposed to trying to get too far ahead of yourself.”
Cullen has been in this situation before. Back in 2006, his and Jim Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes were up 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers, who rallied to force a Game 7. While the ‘Canes were able to win that game and the Stanley Cup, Cullen said there are definitely lessons learned from that experience he can share with the guys.
“It really ultimately comes down to trying to make the most of each moment,” he said. “Each game is sort of a separate season in itself. Just trying to make the most of it. We’re happy with the position we’ve put ourselves in, but now the work really begins. It’s the toughest game to eliminate a team. We’re going to take it step by step here and do our best to get this next one.”
When they leave this afternoon, the guys are going to try and go about business as usual and live in the moment as best they can. And when they come back in the evening, they’ll be prepared.
“Each individual is different, and everybody learns how to manage these emotions on their own,” Cullen said. “Some guys go out and do something active and shoot baskets or something. Some guys just go home and rest and think about it. It’s whatever you do you kind of fall into your routine and how you handle the pressure. So far our team has done a pretty good job, so I’m confident that we’ll be ready.”
Sullivan, on if he needs to settle his players' excitement down: "I think our players have this game in perspective. We spoke about it the last couple of days. I trust our leadership, as I said yesterday. I think we're at our best when we play with emotion and play with energy, but it certainly has to be controlled emotion and it has to be channeled the right way. I trust our leadership in the room that we'll handle it the right way.
Crosby, on Game 5: “You've just got to understand that it's going to take our best and we're going to see their absolute best. In saying that, you can't get caught looking ahead of things. We've had a great approach all playoffs long -- all season long -- in making sure we're staying in the moment here. That will be important now more than ever.”
Cole, on how they don’t get consumed with what could be on the doorstep: “It’s hard, just because everyone’s aware of the situation. I think just trying to live in the moment as best you can is the only way to do it. Right now, that is me going to get lunch and then going to take a nap and then come back to the rink and make some new sticks and then start getting ready for the game.”
Kunitz, on not getting ahead: “Obviously there’s distractions. Everyone goes through them. Coach refers to it as noise. You try to keep that noise minimal. You try to stay in as much of a routine as you can. That’s the only thing you can do. You can’t control the outside circumstances.”
Schultz: “On the anything the older guys have said to help calm the team: “You don’t get this opportunity that often. We need to take advantage of it. Not much has changed. We’ve been doing the same stuff. It doesn’t feel like we have a chance to clinch to be honest. We’re just doing the same things. Had a good practice yesterday, and we’re ready to play tonight.”
Sheary, on what the feeling is like as a younger player: “There are a lot of nerves, a lot of energy. Guys came into the rink really excited this morning, and you seem a lot more awake than you usually are at 8 a.m. in the morning. It’s an exciting time to play hockey and an exciting time to be at the rink. We’re just trying to embrace it.”
Rust, on where he watched Game 7 in 2009: “On my couch in my upstairs den. I was cheering for the wrong team because I grew up in Detroit. That following summer in 2010 I was drafted by Pittsburgh, so my mind changed a little bit.”
Hagelin, on there was a moment during this run where they felt they were onto something: “I think anytime when we’re up against a team like Washington, when you’re up 3-1 you’re feeling good about yourself. You realize that when you’re playing the team that won the league you have something good going. But I think it’s all about living in the present and not thinking too much about what could happen and what happened. Because in this game it’s all about momentum. It’s all about how you perform that on a given night. But yeah, there’s a couple games there against Washington where we felt good about ourselves, and we kept building off that.”
Kuhnhackl, on what’s been the key to their quick starts: “I think it’s just we’ve been through so much where everybody expects us to win, and we’ve played great hockey for the past couple months. But we’re taking it game by game. We’re trying to be ready for each game each period, but especially at home we’re obviously trying to have a good start. “