If you love the game of hockey, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Tonight the Pens host the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. If they win, they will advance to the Stanley Cup Final. If they lose, their remarkable season will be over. And heading into this pivotal matchup, head coach Mike Sullivan’s main message to his players is to embrace the challenge and embrace the moment.
“It's a great opportunity,” he said. “It's a great opportunity to play at this time of year, to put a stamp on these playoffs, to establish ourselves as a group, and we have to look at it in those terms. We've got to embrace the challenge; embrace the moment. Everybody's got to go out there and play hard, and most importantly, play hard for each other.”
That team mindset, said Sullivan, is a powerful dynamic and is what has gotten the Pens to this point. They’ve had success because everyone has participated and everyone has contributed to helping them win. And the rest of his message to the guys was just to play the game the right way, be themselves, and play to their strengths.
“We have a lot of belief, a lot of trust in everybody,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think that 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.”
For Crosby, it means a lot to be in this position – just one victory away from going somewhere he hasn’t been in seven years.
“You probably don't think about a lot of other stuff besides the fact that it's really hard to get there,” he said. “It's one game, and we've got to find a way to win it and try to enjoy it as much as you can, but also understand that it's a great opportunity, and try to leave it all out there.”
To be in this situation is something the guys grow up dreaming about; it’s what motivates them to train as relentlessly as they do during the summer and throughout the year.
“You always dream and hope that you’ll have an opportunity like this, and that’s what you put the work in for,” veteran forward Matt Cullen said. “It’s not easy, and you look back to practices in January and February and workouts when you’re not really feeling up for it. These are the days that that stuff comes into play, and that can make a big difference.”
A lot of things were said in the Pens locker room following morning skate, but what was perhaps most indicative of the mood around the team was how difficult it to was for defenseman Kris Letang to articulate his feelings going into Game 7.
“It’s always a type of game you want to play in,” he said. “The emotion, the thrill, everything surrounding that game is everything. The excitement… I don’t know how to describe it. I just think it’s the best thing in the world.”
“FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME”
Winger Carl Hagelin has a lot of experience in Game 7s, particularly being on the right side of them. He is 6-1 in a team-leading career Game 7 experiences, and so he knows a thing or two about what it takes to win.
“I think you just have to go out there and play for the love of the game,” he said. “I think if you go out there and don’t worry too much – obviously there are going to be a lot of emotions – but if you can just do everything you can out there to be your best, you’re going to have a successful game.”
Hagelin’s only loss came last year when the Lightning defeated the New York Rangers 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final.
“I think that game, we didn’t play good at all,” he said. “It was just one of those games where we had nothing. This is a different team. This is a team that really believes in one another and believes that we can score goals and be a threat offensively when we do the right things and at the same time, we can shut teams down.”
Having been in this situation so often, Hagelin definitely has a sense for what the feeling around the team needs to be.
“You just see within the locker room when you win those games, before games you feel like there’s something special there,” he said. “People are tense but they’re not scared. I think that’s what it comes down to. You have that mindset that you’re going to win. You know it’s going to take a lot.”
FULL 60 MINUTES
When it comes to the X’s and O’s, the Pens have said numerous times throughout this series that they need to put a full 60 minutes of hockey together against the Lightning. And while it’s cliché, it’s true as we’ve watched firsthand.
In Game 6, for example, the Pens thoroughly dominated the Lightning for the first 40 minutes before letting them get back into it in the last 20. They let Tampa Bay cut down a 3-0 lead into 3-2 before Bryan Rust scored a huge breakaway goal that allowed the Pens to pull away for good.
They’re aware they can’t allow lapses like that can’t happen again tonight, and are ready to keep the right mindset from the opening faceoff all the way until until the final buzzer sounds.
“We have to be aggressive. We have to be going,” Cullen said. “There’s no time to sit back and be tight and wait to see how the game is going to go. We know how the game’s going to go. It’s going to be fast-paced. It’s going to be intense, and we need to have our best game from the drop of the puck.”
“This is not the time to play scared. When we’re being aggressive, playing in the offensive zone, that’s when we’re at our best,” Hagelin agreed. “Our team knows that. We know that we have to push the pace.”
Even after the Pens clinched a playoff spot, they continued to battle for the right to have home ice advantage once there, working their way up to second place in the conference behind Washington – a long way from 12th place, which they occupied at one point this season.
The fans have been truly unbelievable all year, and the entire team is looking forward to playing this game in front of them.
“I think the fans in this city are tremendous,” Sullivan said. “They're so supportive. I know the players have so much appreciation for the support that they give them. I know this building is going to be electric tonight. We look at it as almost a man-advantage for us. They've been so supportive through this whole process, and our players and our management team and the coaches are so appreciative for what they bring to our team, and this is why we work as hard as we do all year for this home-ice advantage.”
Sullivan, on whether things can turn positively or negatively on the first shift, first minute of Game 7 like they have in the past for this franchise: “That really hasn't been my experience. I think every situation is different. It's very difficult, in my opinion, to try to throw any sort of a blanket opinion around these types of games based on history. These are completely new teams, new coaches, new situations. I mean, we faced that all year long with our team. We're looking at this like a great opportunity for us to continue to go on this journey that we've so enjoyed the last few months. So I think our guys are excited to play. They understand what it takes in order to have success and how difficult these games are, and I think we're prepared for it.”
Crosby, on what to expect from Tampa: “It’s simple. It’s desperation for both teams. It’s a matter of just focusing on executing. At this point I think both teams believe in their game, and they’re worried about what they need to do. It’s basically who can kind of get to it better and more often. So we have to find a way to do that.”
Cullen, on if he or his kids are more excited: “I don’t know. It’s hard to beat their excitement, I have to tell you. We watched Seabiscut last night to get the motivational juices flowing, and they’re ready to go. We played some basement hockey, and they’re fired up.”
Hornqvist, on how he feels now compared to a Game 1: “Exactly the same. I think we’re calm. We’re focused. We’re confident. Just to go out there and have fun and to take advantage of this opportunity we have here in front of us.”
Letang, on if it’s hard to control your emotions in such a game: “Yeah, sure. It depends how much experience you have. I think a lot of guys went through a lot of Game 7s in this dressing room, so we have to prepare the same way and keep doing what we’ve been doing best.”
Fehr, on the emotional level: “It’s really tough, but you try to play the same way. You don’t want to make any different plays. You want to make sure you’re strong on the boards. You don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I think it’s still regular playoff hockey, it’s just everything’s a little bit heightened.”
Lovejoy, on the mindset for Game 7: “We want to come out and be at our best. We feel when we’re playing our best hockey we’re a really tough team to beat. We want to be sharp. We want to be engaged from the get-go. This is a team that doesn’t need 40 shots to score three or four goals. Tampa can beat you as soon as they get one opportunity. They don’t need a lot of shots, and we want to be focused and ready from the get-go.”