Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh – Game 7 – Rust scores both goals en route to the Eastern Title

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With a 2-1 Game 7 victory, the Pittsburgh Penguins earn a date with the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Steven Stamkos made his first return to the ice after recovering from his blood clots.  That malady had kept him sidelined since the last day of March, almost two full months.

The easiest thing to say about the first period is that it was just about even, not favoring one team or the other.  Although Tampa Bay almost certainly won the possession metric and effectively used those efforts to apply pressure on Second Star of the Game Matt Murray, Pittsburgh had more quality chances.

That being said, it was the Lightning who had the first quality chance.  It was a breakaway with one more skater to beat – defenseman Olli Maatta.  Before the Bolt could rear back and fire, the third-year Penguin performed a quality poke check to neutralize the attack.

Third Star Evgeni Malkin was busy in the period, but not always for Pittsburgh’s benefit.  He had at least two strong opportunities, but both times his efforts did not yield a goal.

He was also the first penalty of the contest, interfering with Ondrej Palat at the 6:52 mark.  The Bolts‘ power play lasted only 31 seconds, cut short when Brian Boyle slashed Nick Bonino.

Pittsburgh led the first frame in hits (eight to five), face-offs (56%), blocks (seven to six) and takeaways (three to two), while Tampa was the better squad in the giveaway (one to four) and hit (16 to 10) departments.

The second period had many more goals than the first, made true by First Star Bryan Rust’s snap shot only 1:55 after resuming play.  He was assisted by Chris Kunitz (his sixth helper of the postseason) and Malkin.  Waiting at the offensive blue line, Geno received a long pass from Maatta in the defensive zone.  Almost immediately after crossing into the zone, he left the puck for Kunitz, who found the rookie streaking towards Andrei Vasilevskiy’s crease.  He scored from between the face-off dots over the netminder’s glove.

A minute later, play transitioned into a four-on-four scenario once again as tempers started flaring, with Ian Cole (elbowing) and Cedric Paquette (roughing) both earning a seat in the sin bin.  During this time, the ice was certainly slanted towards Vasilevskiy’s cage, as Sidney Crosby and the Penguins took advantage of the less-congested ice to fire three quality shots (two by the captain) over two opportunities, all saved by the Lightning netminder.

Even once Cole and Paquette returned to the rink, Pittsburgh still maintained heavy pressure in their own offensive zone.  It wasn’t until the 8:43 mark that Tampa had a real opportunity on Murray’s net, but was able to make the save on only the second shot he’d faced in the frame.

That effort was important though, as the next Lightning attack leveled the game.  Sophomore Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth tally of the playoffs on a top-shelf wrister at the 9:36 mark, assisted by Valtteri Filppula and Victor Hedman (his 10th postseason assist).  Drouin collected a puck in the neutral zone from Filppula and advanced into the offensive zone in a three-on-three situation.  He crossed from far to near face-off zones before shooting over Murray’s glove.

The tied game didn’t last long though – only half a minute, to be exact.  Rust took credit for his second goal of the night (this on the game winner) on a wrister of his own, assisted by Ben Lovejoy and Malkin (his 11th helper of these playoffs).  Malkin found the puck in the near corner and shoved it up the boards to Lovejoy to reset the play.  The defenseman fired a shot off the boards behind the net, which Rust collected and shoved between the near post and Vasilevskiy’s left skate.

All of this was a result of increased offensive pressure.  Although Tampa Bay was successful in scoring on 20% of their shots this period, the Penguins preferred to do things the old-fashioned way with tons of shots – 21 to be exact, leading the Lightning‘s second period attempts by 16 shots.

Ryan Callahan was the next Bolt to take a seat on the wrong side of the ice, charged with hi-sticking Lovejoy with 7:37 remaining in the period.  Pittsburgh quickly took to peppering Vasilevskiy’s net, but try as they might, including an incredible opportunity for Conor Sheary stopped by Hedman, the Pens couldn’t register an insurance goal.

The Penguins once again headed to the power play with 5:06 remaining in the second period when Drouin held Tom Kuhnhackl’s stick, but just like Tampa‘s man-advantage, it ended early.  Like he has been so many other times this postseason, Kris Letang was the guilty party for tripping Palat only 19 seconds into the advantage.

Just like the other four-on-four this period, the Penguins took advantage of the open ice to put quick pressure on Vasilevskiy, but Stamkos and the Lightning took notes and returned the favor.  Both keepers made the necessary saves to keep the score differential favoring Pittsburgh by only a tally.

Right when Drouin exited the box, Hedman took a seat for slashing Malkin.  19 seconds later, the Penguins went to work on the power play for 101 ticks on the clock.  Phil Kessel almost scored on a rebound with half a minute remaining on the advantage, but once again Anton Stralman and the Tampa Bay defense stood tall to hold the score at 2-1.

Although Pittsburgh led the frame’s shots and takeaways (four to none), Tampa was actually better at the face-off dot and in blocks (six to three) and giveaways (two to three).  The teams both threw 12 hits in the frame, meaning Tampa was still the more physical team after 40 minutes (28 hits to 22).

As would be expected, Tampa Bay came out of the dressing room with a mission.  They applied almost constant pressure to Murray’s net for the first five minutes of the frame.  During the attack, Bonino performed a block that left him dazed, requiring him to be helped to the dressing room.  He returned to the bench approximately five game minutes later.

Nikita Kucherov put a kink in that offensive though when he fired a puck over the glass, earning him a two minute break.  The Penguins did well to earn Murray a break, but they could not expand their lead.  Just as soon as Kucherov returned, they resumed their attack on Murray’s crease with a Coyle breakaway chance, stopped by the goaltender’s right pad.

Thanks to some spectacular offensive pressure by the Pens, Vasilevskiy didn’t make his way to the Tampa bench until only a minute remained in regulation.

That minute was the loudest CONSOL Energy Center had been all night.  Tampa Bay took their timeout with 44 seconds remaining in regulation.  The ensuing face-off was in Pittsburgh‘s defensive zone, who won the restart and got the puck out of the zone twice… well, kind of.  The second one was an icing penalty with 14.9 seconds to go.

The Penguins then took their timeout, won the restart and tried to clear, but the puck hit Lovejoy’s stick.  The problem with that?  He was on the bench, meaning the next face-off was once again in Murray’s end.  Tampa Bay could not fire a shot in the remaining time, meaning that Pittsburgh won the Prince of Wales Trophy for the first time since 2009, taking it from the Eastern Conference runner-up.

Murray earns the victory after saving 16 of 17 shots faced (94.1%), while Vasilevskiy takes the loss, saving 37 of 39 (94.9%).

The Penguins will host the Western Champion San Jose Sharks this Monday, May 30.  Puck drop is scheduled for 8 p.m. eastern and may be viewed on CBC, NBC or TVAS.

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