A few of the Pens in this locker room were in this same situation two years ago – up 3-1 in their playoff series with the New York Rangers, with Game 5 scheduled at home.
The Blueshirts went on to defeat the Pens 5-1 in that matchup at CONSOL Energy Center, their first of three straight wins en route to eliminating Pittsburgh in seven games.
That was certainly a learning experience for the players who went through it, one of them being captain Sidney Crosby – who said his biggest takeaway from that year was making sure their desperation level is where it needs to be heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. puck drop, where the Pens can eliminate the Rangers and move onto the Second Round with a win.
“When you’re playing a team with their back against the wall, you get a desperate hockey team,” he said. “You need to make sure that you match that. I think as long as we understand that, that’s the biggest thing.”
With that being said, as head coach Mike Sullivan put it, the past is the past. This is such a different group from that one, as just Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only guys left from that series. And they’re not going to let any ghosts haunt them.
“You look up and down the lineup and there’s a lot of new faces, lot of new players, new staff,” said winger Carl Hagelin, who was a member of the Rangers that season. “I don’t think anyone’s thinking back. It’s all about looking forward. We’re a confident group and we have to be ready for the challenge we have tomorrow.”
And Sullivan and his staff are preparing their team to be just that.
“We understand that the elimination game is the most difficult one, so our intensity and our compete level has to be higher,” he said. “Our attention to detail has to be better. But certainly, this is a new team with a new experience so we’re looking forward to the opportunity to get on the ice again. We’ll do everything we can to try and get the right result.”
If they continue to get the type of goaltending they’ve received from Matt Murray so far, the Pens will be in tremendous shape to do just that.
After the 21-year-old became the youngest goalie in team history to start and win a playoff game in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 victory in Game 3, Murray followed that up by becoming the first rookie netminder in franchise history to record a postseason shutout when he made 31 saves in the Pens’ 5-0 blanking in Game 4.
While he admitted to of course, being happy after the win, Murray did his best to stay his usual even-tempered self.
“A win is a win and it feels good, but at the same time, at this point of the season it really doesn’t matter until you get the fourth one,” Murray said before adding with a smile, “I know it’s cliché and I know you guys probably hate hearing it, but we’re taking it one game at a time and that’s how you have to approach these types of situations.”
Murray did let himself have a little more fun in his media conference following Game 4, calling himself out for dropping a couple extra clichés on the assembled reporters.
“It’s exciting, obviously,” he said of his performances at Madison Square Garden. “It’s pretty cool and it’s pretty emotional. I know I’ll definitely go call my parents after this game and share that with them. But it really doesn’t matter going forward. That’s how I’m looking at it and I know that’s another cliché for you guys, but honestly, we have to focus on the next one. Another cliché here, the next one’s going to be the hardest one to get.”
Tomorrow will be Murray’s biggest test yet, but he’s embracing the pressure.
“I just look at things as a challenge, and I think the best way to face any challenge is head on,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to shy away. You want to kind of be assertive, and you want to take the challenge head on. That’s the best way to attempt to conquer it.”
For Murray, who admits to having nerves at the start of every game – especially in the playoffs – it helps having a veteran teammate like Fleury around.
Even though he hasn’t been skating with the team for a few days (he did take the ice in his goalie skates along with player gloves and a stick and ripped a few pucks before Friday’s practice), Fleury has still been around the room and his presence is one Murray welcomes.
“He’s really good at keeping the guys loose,” Murray said. “I know one moment I remember is a couple weeks ago against Buffalo. I let in three goals in the first eight or nine shots in the first period, and he comes over to me in the first intermission, and he just goes, ‘Hey, just brush it off,’ and just goes like that with his shoulder. It just kind of made me laugh a little bit and kind of calm the nerves a little bit. That’s just his veteran presence I think. He’s a really good guy, keeping everybody loose and sometimes you need that when you’re a little too tense.”
More Murray on how he deals with nerves: “A lot of deep breathing and stuff like that. A big thing for me is just trying to be 100 percent in the moment and not thinking about anything in the past or the future. Just try to stay present. I think if you can do that, it kind of is able to calm you down a little bit, and you’re not really being anxious about what’s to come or what’s passed.”
Sullivan on special teams: “The numbers speak for themselves. I think our penalty kill has done a great job when the time comes. They’ve quietly, I think, been the unsung heroes for our team this year with how hard they play and how well they’ve done for us as far as getting those necessary kills at key times during the game. I think when our penalty kill goes out there and gets the job done, it gives our team a boost on the bench and our guys feed off of that and we get momentum. I think the penalty kill has been terrific consistently now for quite some time. Our power play obviously has had some timely goals for us in this series. They’re going to have to continue being difference makers for us as we move on here to try to close out this series and get the result that we’re looking for here in Game 5.”
Hagelin on the approach to Game 5: “It’s all about not thinking too much. We’ve got to go out there and try to win a game. Just like we have been in the previous four games. We want to go out there and do everything we can to succeed and that’s all the small details. Getting pucks deep, working hard throughout 60 minutes.”
Letang on the takeaway from New York’s series comeback in 2014: “Through the years, with experience you try to learn different things and that’s one of them. When you have a chance to finish something, you don’t want to wait. You want to bring your best effort. Especially from the start.”
Crosby on the effort in Game 4: “You want to play the right way, but I think that’s playoffs. You’ve got to give yourself a chance every night and that one’s over and we’ve got to do it again. It was a good win and we put ourselves in a position here to close out at home, so we want to get it done.”
Malkin on where his game is at following his 4-point effort (2G-2A) in Game 4: “It’s so much better, I think. Finally I started to play a little bit better. It’s more confidence and I think my line played good tonight. I know we can play better and we try to play better every game.”