Sports Hockey

NHL PLAYOFFS

When it comes to Game 7s, Penguins have the pedigree

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby during Game 6 against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre on May 23, 2017. (Tony Caldwell/Postmedia)

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby during Game 6 against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre on May 23, 2017. (Tony Caldwell/Postmedia)

It’s a team leader who has won pretty much everything there is to win, often courtesy of the magic that rests in his own stick blade.

It’s a rookie goalie who has already sipped champagne from hockey’s Holy Grail almost a full season before he ever received a Calder Trophy vote.

And it’s a coach who has yet to see his team lose a playoff series, going 6-0 in such post-season matchups since being appointed bench boss 18 months ago.

From Sidney Crosby to Matt Murray to Mike Sullivan, there are plenty of reasons for the defending champions to be quietly confident heading into the third Game 7 in their past five playoff matchups.

After the Pittsburgh Penguins met with reporters Wednesday, it would be easy to misconstrue some of their comments as a sign of swagger as they prepare to meet the Ottawa Senators in the seventh and deciding contest of this topsy-turvy 2017 Eastern Conference final Thursday night in The Steel City.

In essence, it is none of that. In reality, it’s a belief that they can win. Because, in recent times, in these precise situations, that’s exactly what they’ve done.

As such, here are five key reasons the Penguins feel they have a good shot at winning.

1. CAPTAIN CLUTCH

Crosby’s resume when it comes to the big stage:

  • A pair of Stanley Cups;
  • Scoring the Golden Goal in overtime against the U.S., giving Canada the Olympic crown at the 2010 Games in Vancouver;
  • Captaining the Canadians to the 2014 gold medal in Sochi and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey crown;
  • Winning the 2016 Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP

Crosby was all over the ice in Game 6, peppering Sens goalie Craig Anderson with six shots in 21:48 of ice time. Anderson’s heroics allowed Ottawa to post the 2-1 win, but Crosby’s performance earned kudos from Sullivan.

Asked Wednesday if Crosby is the ultimate player for such a dramatic upcoming stage, Sullivan replied: “Well, I think he is. I just think he has played in arguably the most high stakes environments in all different venues, whether it be the NHL, the Olympics, the World Cup. You know, he has such a wealth of experience to draw on.

“And I think he’s a fierce competitor. I think Sid’s a guy that wants to win in the worst way, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. And so there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll lead by example.”

2. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

In terms of Game 7s, the recent history is no mystery when it comes to the Penguins.

A year ago, a pair of Bryan Rust goals gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final. The Penguins went on to capture the Cup in six games versus San Jose.

Two weeks ago, the Pens marched into the Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals in a do-or-die situation and once again sent Alex Ovechkin and Co., packing, thanks to a 2-0 decision.

“I have to believe those experiences will serve our players well,” Sullivan said. “It’s not something that’s new to them. These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions, and they have those experiences to draw on.

“I think they know what to expect, and now it’s a matter of going out and earning it and controlling what they can — doing your very best to get the result that we’re looking for.”

3. MASTERFUL MATT

Since taking over from Marc-Andre Fleury early in Game 3, Murray has been magnificent, stopping 96 of 101 shots, posting a .950 save percentage, a 1.33 goals-against average and a shutout. All this after leading the Pens to the title a year ago with just 13 career regular season games under his belt at the time.

“It’s coming down to one game, and everything that’s led up to now really doesn’t matter,” Murray told reporters Wednesday. “But at the same time, we want to take those good feelings from the last couple games — I thought we played really well, even (Tuesday) night.”

4. MOTIVATED MALKIN

Pittsburgh’s lone goal in Game 6 came on a magnificent individual effort by Evgeni Malkin, who leads the NHL playoffs in scoring with 24 points — five more than Crosby and the recently eliminated Ryan Getzlaf. Malkin has been a difference-maker in these playoffs at a time when there are very few in the sport.

To that end, Sullivan agreed that Malkin, like Crosby, pushes himself to the brink in these win-or-go-home situations.

“Yeah, he (does),” Sullivan said. “You know, these guys, I think their expectation is they’re going to win. Anything short of that is disappointment on our part.”

5. SULLY’S SUCCESS

In 42 playoff games behind the Pens bench, Sullivan has guided Pittsburgh to a 27-15 record, a .643 winning percentage, two Game 7 wins, zero series losses and a Stanley Cup triumph. All the while, his trust in his players has never wavered, no matter how dire the injury situation has appeared at times.

“There’s no doubt, in my mind certainly, that our guys, they’ll have the right frame of mind going into Game 7,” Sullivan said.

Just like their coach.

mzeisberger@postmedia.com