The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals Tuesday night to set up a decisive Game 7.
To borrow from one of Mike Lange’s most famous victory calls, the Penguins and Lightning will meet in the schoolyard for all of the Eastern Conference marbles on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship in 1991, the Pens forced the decisive game by jumping out to an early 3-0 lead and then weathering a third period Tampa Bay scoring rush that saw the Lightning cut the lead to 3-2 before the Penguins put the finishing touches on a 5-2 victory.
The game was replete with several captivating story lines, and in a fortunate twist of hockey fate all worked out about as well as the Penguins could have possibly asked for. Coach Mike Sullivan went back to Matt Murray in goal after starting Marc-Andre Fleury in Sunday’s Game 5 loss. Murray answered the call, letting only two pucks past, both at the hands of Tampa’s Brian Boyle, one of which was an accidental chip in off the stick of Phil Kessel, who was trying to deflect a cross ice pass.
Pittsburgh’s stars, much maligned after the Game 5 result, also rose to the occasion. Kris Letang scored on a sharp wrister to get Pittsburgh on the board at 7:40 of the second period, partly atoning for his much-criticized minus-4 performance in the previous loss. Sidney Crosby followed at 19:34 of the second with a highlight reel goal that saw him intercept a neutral ice pass and barrel through two Tampa players before beating goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy through the five hole.
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Crosby, the subject of about as much criticism and expectation to perform as any star on any team, gave fans a brief recollection of another Pittsburgh great, Mario Lemieux, who torched the Minnesota North Stars for a similar score in those ‘91 Stanley Cup Finals. Teammate Evgeni Malkin, also the subject of harsh treatment from the Pittsburgh media after a flat series and playoff thus far but who indirectly guaranteed a victory set up several scoring chances and logged an assist on Kessel’s opener to help Pittsburgh set the tone for the night.
Boyle’s two goals in the third, at 5:30 and 12:43 respectively, gave Tampa hope, but it was short lived. Bryan Rust slid a breakaway attempt past Vasilevsky at 17:52 of the period to regain the multiple-goal advantage for the Pens, and Kessel’s HBK Line teammate Nick Bonino joined him in the goal column by putting the icing on the cake with an empty netter just under a minute left.
As is often the case in playoff hockey the Penguins benefited from a stroke of good luck in the victory as well. Tampa seemingly jumped out to a 1-0 lead less than a minute into the game, oddly reminiscent of their Game 4 victory at home, but replays showed that Jonathan Drouin was clearly offside on the play, and the score subsequently reversed.
The clubs will travel back to Pittsburgh tomorrow before facing off for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Finals on Thursday night at 8 PM at Consol Energy Center.