Pens head coach Mike Sullivan laid to rest any speculation regarding whom his starting goaltender will be for Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Tuesday night.
“Matt Murray is our starting goaltender,” said Sullivan, whose Pens are facing an elimination game trailing 3-2 in the series. “The reason, just like all lineup decisions, we try to put players on the ice that we think give us the best chance to win.”
Murray has played the majority of games for the Pens during their postseason run. With normal starter Marc-Andre Fleury recovering from a concussion at the onset of the playoffs, Murray stepped in to beat the NY Rangers and Washington Capitals in Rounds One and Two respectively. The 21-year-old rookie started the first four games of the ECF against the Bolts before Fleury had his first start in Game 5.
“Matt has played extremely well for us throughout the course of the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “He’s won a lot of big games for us, he’s made timely saves for us. He has demeanor, a calming effect on the group in front of him. His performance speaks for itself.”
Fleury stopped 21 of 25 shots in his Game 5 start. It was his first full-game action since March 31.
“I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” Sullivan said Monday. “I thought he really settled into the game in the first period and made some real big saves. He might have got away from it a little bit as the game went on. And to Marc’s defense, it’s a tough situation when you haven’t played in a long time and you get thrown into a high-stakes environment like that.”
Sullivan added this afternoon:
“At this point in the season we don’t have the luxury of allowing players to play through things. We have to win a hockey game. That’s how we looked at it.”
The Pens are showing no lack of confidence regarding their Game 6 matchup against the Bolts, despite trailing 3-2 in the series.
Following Game 5’s overtime loss, Patric Hornqvist said, “There is no doubt in my mind that we’ll come back (to Pittsburgh) for Game 7.”
Center Evgeni Malkin had a similar tone when addressing the media Monday afternoon from the airport runway: “I believe in my team. I believe in myself. We can come back to Pittsburgh (for Game 7).”
Although, not quite on the scale of a Mark Messier guarantee, the statements from the players certainly shows they have confidence in their team.
“I think it’s terrific that they show the faith in themselves and their teammates,” Sullivan said. “I think sometimes (the media) puts words into their mouths and twist it into something that it’s not. But I absolutely love the fact that they believe in their teammates, believe in themselves and believe that each and every night that we get on the ice, we’re going to win.”
“It’s a big challenge and you see what you’re made of in these situations,” captain Sidney Crosby said.
Even Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper understood the Pens’ statements coming from their vantage point:
“Let’s be honest, what’s he supposed to say? ‘We’re done. We’re just going down there for a formality.’”
Sullivan noted that he believed no team in the entire NHL has faced the amount of adversity that the Pens have during this season, starting right in training camp. But somehow they’ve overcome all of it and have landed in the ECF.
“I know we’ve got a determined group. We’ve always responded the right way to any sort of adversities that we’ve faced this season,” Sullivan said. “I know our guys will to the same tonight.”
The last time the Pens lost Game 5 with a series tied 2-2 was back in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit. After getting defeated 5-0 by the Red Wings, we all know what happened next – Pittsburgh bounced back to win Games 6 and 7 with identical 2-1 scores on their way to capturing the franchise’s third championship.
The biggest lesson Crosby learned from that experience, he said, was the level of desperation that’s needed in a game like this.
“You know it’s going to be close,” he said. “You know you’re going to fight for every inch out there. So just understanding that.”
Another thing, Crosby continued, is just to focus on the game itself.
“Not the result,” he continued. “Not anything that happens over the course of a game. You just really have to kind of break it up into one shift at a time. It’s cliché, but it’s true. That’s the way you have to look at it. Over the course of the game momentum’s going to change. That’s how it’s going to work. But at the end of the day, it’s those details and it’s not a switch, it’s something where you’ve got to go in there with the right mindset and we’ll have that for sure.”
When asking players around the locker room about what the Pens need to do better on the ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a theme emerged.
“We have to limit their rushes. They’re really good on the rush,” Hornqvist said.
“Limiting their rushes and our turnovers,” Nick Bonino said. “When we feed their rush we make the game easier for them. Control the puck and try not to turn it over in those areas that give them dangerous chances.”
The key to the Pens’ success always comes down to their puck management. And it’s especially important against a deadly attacking transition team like Tampa Bay. But hearing every Pens player reiterate the same point, seems to mean it will be an extra point of emphasis tonight.
MORNING SKATE DETAILS
As the Pens had the day off on Monday, the entire team participated in practice today – including all three goalies and defenseman Steve Oleksy, who was one of a group of players recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after their playoff run ended.
Here’s how the lines and D-pairs looked…
If those lines are any indication, it looks like Sheary will be back in the lineup after Beau Bennett slotted in for him in Game 5. If that is the case, Sullivan talked about what the coaching staff needs to see from the young winger.
“Conor brings a lot of energy, his quickness, his relentless pursuit on the puck,” Sullivan said. “He's got a good stick, he's got play making ability. That's when he's at his best. That's our expectation of him when he plays for us. For me, that's what he's brought that to us all season long: just his quickness, his quick stick, his ability to anticipate plays, knock pucks down, create opportunities off of turnovers. That's the type of player that he is. That's what he brings to the line that he's on, and that's what our expectation is when he's in the lineup.”
Another player who got back in was Olli Maatta, who returned for Game 5 after being a healthy scratch for Games 2-4.
He produced a solid performance, finishing with one assist and doing the majority of the heavy lifting on the Chris Kunitz goal that gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead, although he wasn’t credited with a helper on the play. Maatta finished the game plus-2 with four hits in 17-plus minutes.
“Lots,” Maatta said when I asked him how much adrenaline he had going into the game. “I just wanted to go out there and play and have fun and that’s what it was. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but we’ve just got to be better tonight.
“We know we didn’t play a full game and that cost us the game there. We know we can be better and if we play the way we have the last couple months, if we play as a group, we’re going to be fine