One chance and 60 minutes of ice time separates the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning from the Stanley Cup Finals as the two squads prepare for Thursday night’s Game 7 battle for the Eastern Conference at Consol Energy Center.
And both sides will have to rely on young goalkeepers to play beyond their years.
After holding a 2-1 series lead only to follow up with two straight losses, star forward Sidney Crosby and the Penguins managed to force the series-deciding game with an astounding scoring display and 5-2 victory in Game 6 Tuesday night, with rookie goalie Matt Murray returning to the ice to make 28 saves after he was benched for Game 5.
Forwards Phil Kessel and Crosby, and defenseman Kris Letang helped build a 3-0 lead in the second period, but Tampa Bay’s Brian Boyle gave the defending East champs a shot with two goals in the third. Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino each scored their third goals of the playoffs in the final period and shifted the series back home, where the Penguins have gone 6-3 in the postseason.
Their ability to maintain home-ice notwithstanding, Pittsburgh doesn’t have nearly as strong a history in Game 7s as Tampa Bay. The Penguins are 7-7 all-time in Game 7s, going 2-7 at home and dropping their last three, including two years ago when they fell to the Rangers 2-1 at home.
Meanwhile, the Lightning 5-1 in Game 7s, albeit with a far less rich franchise history as Pittsburgh, and they proved successful in the same situation in last year’s conference finals. Tampa Bay forced a Game 7 against the Rangers and won on the road 2-0 thanks to keeper Ben Bishop’s 22-save shutout. All told, the Lightning are 2-1 on the road in Game 7s.
But Bishop hasn’t played since Game 1 of the series after suffering a lower left leg injury, making Lightning head coach Jon Copper turn to second-year keeper Andrei Vasilevskiy. Bishop did participate in Tuesday’s practice, according the Tampa Bay Times, but he’s expected to play in the next round should the Lightning advance.
The Russian has surrendered 18 goals, a high number but understandable given the Penguins stacked lines, and has an overall .921 save percentage. Vasilevskiy also hasn’t been benched, unlike Murray.
The 22-year-old, who went 9-2-1 in 12 games during the regular season, gave up four goals in the first two periods of Game 4 and was pulled in favor of veteran Marc-Andre Fluery by head coach Mike Sullivan.
Predicted Score: Pittsburgh over Tampa Bay, 3-2
Start Time: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC Sports Network
Live Stream: NBC Live Extra