All expected Pens players were present for Thursday’s practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. The Pens were back on the ice following a day off after their emotional rollercoaster of a series-clinching win over Washington in Game 6 on Tuesday.
“You’ve got to turn the page quick, especially in our case,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Coming off an emotional series, you want to make sure that you’re ready to have that same level of desperation and intensity that you need in the playoffs. If anything, we should build some confidence and have some momentum here heading into this series.”
Next up is Tampa Bay. The Pens finished 0-2-1 against the Lightning in the regular season, getting outscored 15-9. But the teams haven't met since Feb. 20, and it’s safe to say both squads are in different positions.
“We’ll be able to use some of the video from back then,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “But this league is all about what you’ve done in the last couple of games. We’re a new team, and they’re a new team. It’s just two good teams going at it.”
That was a sentiment shared by the players in both locker rooms.
“I can’t even remember when we played them last,” winger Phil Kessel jokingly admitted. “Obviously, you see they’re playing good hockey in the playoffs and they’re going to be a good team.”
“When you see them at a certain point in the season it doesn’t really matter because it’s going to be completely different in playoffs,” Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. “We’re a completely different team than what we were in the season as well.”
The Pens’ style of play has changed along with their confidence level after knocking off the Capitals, the NHL’s Presidents Trophy winners, in the last round.
“To be honest, we haven’t played them in so long it’s tough to really get a feel for them,” forward Eric Fehr said. “We’re playing a different style of game then the last time we played them, so it will be interesting to see how we matchup in the first game with the different system that we have. We’re a different team then we were the last time we played. Obviously a lot of the same players, but systems-wise and just the confidence level is at a different stage right now.”
There has been a lot of speculation about the Penguin’s goalie situation throughout the playoffs, starting when Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray were both injured to start the first round against the Rangers.
“We have three good goalies, and I’ll start with (Jeff) Zatkoff,” Pens general manager Jim Rutherford said. “We may not have got out of the New York series if he hadn’t won that first game for us. He played very well.”
Murray recovered first, taking over the net from Zatkoff in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden. The 21-year-old has since backstopped his way to a 7-2 record, most recently becoming the first rookie goaltender to lead a playoff series win against the Presidents’ Trophy team since Calgary’s Mike Vernon did so for the Calgary Flames against the Edmonton Oilers in 1986.
Via the Elias Sports Bureau, Murray became the first rookie goaltender to win multiple series clinching games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006. He enters Game 1 with a four-game home playoff winning streak, a seven-game home winning streak and a nine-game home unbeaten streak (8-0-1), including the regular season.
However, despite Murray's incredible play, with the Pens between series there has been much external debate over whether or not head coach Mike Sullivan should stick with the hot rookie goaltender or go with the veteran franchise netminder. Fleury returned to the lineup for Game 3 against Washington and has served as the backup since.
Internally, the Pens aren’t letting any of the talk affect them. Both goaltenders have had great attitudes about the situation, and they both only want what is best for the team – and they trust Sullivan to determine what that is.
“Coach’s decisions are coach’s decisions,” Murray explained. “I have no say in that. All I can do is play in a way that hopefully keeps me in the net, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to earn my ice time and prove that I belong here. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole season. Just trying to prove that I belong, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
If the net remains Murray’s, Fleury will continue to be his biggest supporter.
“I think that’s his decision,” Marc-Andre Fleury said. “I’ll be working trying to be ready if he needs me, and I’ll keep cheering on Matty. Matty’s been playing great like the rest of the guys, and hopefully we win some more games.”
Sullivan said he will likely announce the starting goaltender Friday.
Written by CJ Harvey and Ashley Vesci