The Penguins entire season comes down to one game. Trailing 3-2 in the Stanley Cup Final to the Detroit Red Wings, it is do or die for Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are a desperate hockey team and will be fighting for their lives in Tuesday’s Game 6 showdown at Mellon Arena. Despite the unfavorable position, the Penguins have no doubts that the Final is far from over.
“Our guys don’t ever think that we’re down and out,” Chris Kunitz
said. “We can win any night we go on the ice. We know we have the confidence and ability to go out there and win. We just have to do it.”
“I think we’re going to bounce back,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “We have all year.”
In fact, the Penguins’ 2009 season has been a testament to resiliency that reads like a Dylan Thomas poem:
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Thomas wrote.
The Penguins have been fighting against the dying light even before the season even began:
• Pittsburgh lost one of its best offensive defenseman for three months due to offseason foot surgery.
• The Penguins lost their best defenseman and blue line leader when Sergei Gonchar injured his shoulder in the preseason and needed surgery. Without Gonchar, Pittsburgh fought through 56 games without their power-play quarterback and emotional locker room leader.
• Pittsburgh fell into a slump from December through early February that saw the team plummet to the 10th spot in the standings. The Penguins were five points removed from a playoff spot with only 25 games remaining in the season. Pittsburgh’s postseason light was dying.
The odds were stacked against the Penguins and they knew it would be an uphill battle just to qualify for the playoffs. But everything began to change when Dan Bylsma became head coach.
Bylsma instilled into the team a new aggressive style of play and, more importantly, a new attitude.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The Penguins rediscovered their swagger and pulled off the most dramatic turnaround in franchise history, finishing the season with a jaw-dropping 18-3-4 record and not only qualified for the postseason but gained home-ice advantage in the opening round. The Penguins climbed from the 10th-seed abyss into the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference.
But that was only the beginning of the story. The obstacles kept coming for the Penguins in the postseason, and the team overcame challenge after challenge.
• The Penguins held a 3-1 series lead over Philadelphia in the opening round. After dropping Game 5 at home, Pittsburgh found itself in a 3-0 hole in Game 6 in Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh’s confidence was never shaken. After falling behind 3-0, the team responded with two quick goals in a 1 minute-, 57-second span to make it a 3-2 game. Crosby tied the game late in the second period and the Penguins went on to post five unanswered goals to eliminate their top rival, 5-3, in a hostile environment to advance to the semifinals.
• Pittsburgh found itself in another dire position in its semifinals showdown with the Washington Capitals. The Penguins dropped the first two games in the nation’s capital. When Game 3 advanced into overtime, Pittsburgh was one goal away from entering a desperate 3-0 hole. But Kris Letang
tallied the overtime winning score in Game 3 to keep the light shining.
The team suffered another setback when Gonchar was injured after suffering a knee-on-knee collision with Alex Ovechkin in Game 4. The Penguins still managed to win three games in a row to take a 3-2 series lead.
After a heartbreaking Game 6 overtime loss, the Penguins had to play the decisive Game 7 in a hostile environment. Gonchar, whom many thought might be out of the lineup for the rest of the season, made a gutsy comeback in Game 7 for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh responded in the most critical game of the season to that point with its best performance of the year. The team jumped out to a 5-0 lead, chased goaltender Simeon Varlamov and cruised to a 6-2 triumph to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
• Pittsburgh fended off a feisty Carolina Hurricanes team, which had upset New Jersey and top-seeded Boston in the first two rounds, in the East final. The Penguins swept Carolina, winning the final two games on the road to earn a berth in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final.
• The Penguins once again found themselves in an unenviable situation after dropping the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final to the Red Wings in Detroit. But Pittsburgh has been through so much this season. The team wasn’t rattled and counter punched with two wins at Mellon Arena to even the series at 2-2.
So even though Pittsburgh suffered a 5-0 loss in Game 5, the team remains unshaken. They’ve been down this road before and have responded every time. The Penguins are confident that this occasion will be no different.
“This group is still confident,” Maxime Talbot said. “We lost Game 5 5-0 but nobody was down on themselves. Everybody is loose, ready and focused. We know the importance of Game 6.”
Besides, after everything this team has overcame this season, how could anyone possibly count them out at this point? These are the situations where Pittsburgh has elevated its game and played its best this season.
“Guys realize that when the chips are down, you have to be at your best,” Crosby said. “We need to respond the same way we have (in the past). Having those scenarios and knowing we’ve bounced back in the right way, I think that gives us confidence.”
With their championship on the line, the Penguins will not go quietly into that good night.
“I really believe that it’s not over and I am looking forward to a Game 7,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “But at the same time I’m going to be ready for Game 6 and focus on that one.”
"I like it being a defining moment," Bylsma said. "You know, moments like this define where you're at at that particular time. You know, everyone in that room should be ready to play their best game and make a difference in the game by playing their part, by doing what we do as a team. And that's the challenge. We need a defining game."