The stage is now set for what should be one of the best Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. Following last night’s win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be tasked with playing the San Jose Sharks, a team that has features of each opponent Pittsburgh has played in these playoffs.
Matt Murray and Bryan Rust were the Penguins two biggest contributors last night. This isn’t to say that the work of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby went unnoticed, but the team as a whole stepped up and played an exciting game. Although Kris Letang got called for a number of bone-headed penalties, the Penguins would prevail, 2-1, and move on to play for all the marbles.
The Lightning didn’t play bad, Murray was just that good Thursday night. Not to mention that Pittsburgh’s offense bombarded Tampa Bay’s netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy, shooting the puck 39 times to the Lightning’s 17.
One drawback from Thursday’s game is that the Penguins cannot afford to miss the same opportunities they had against the Lightning when they begin the series against San Jose. Five power-plays went without a score and multiple breakaway goals and open nets from a bad-positioned Vasilevskiy allowed the game to remain so close.
The Sharks are a team that encompasses speed, toughness, strong defense, but most importantly strong goaltending. Pittsburgh’s offense cannot allow themselves to miss the same opportunities against a hungry team that is making their first Stanley Cup appearance.
Coach: “They have become a team in the truest sense of the word. I couldn’t be more proud, but we aren’t done yet.” pic.twitter.com/NtQNAPIsdb
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 27, 2016
An important note to keep in mind that the Penguins are relatively healthy going into the finals. Even though Pittsburgh lost an important player in Trevor Daley, the defense has stepped up and played well since his ankle was broken.
Fans watched in anxiousness when Nick Bonino went down and needed help off the ice in Game 7. His return later in this game dispelled any concerns about him being out for a significant time.
Playing the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, it is impressive that most of Pittsburgh’s players have remained healthy enough to make great contributions in key moments.
What Pittsburgh lacked more than anything in the months of November and December were players surrounding Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Phil Kessel. Rust, the hero of Game 7, is a perfect example of how scary this team can be.
Not only did Tampa Bay have their hands tied with some of the more elite players, they also had to account for the solid depth players who have made great strides since beginning the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Coach Mike Sullivan brought this team from rags to riches. While the season is not over and their goal has yet to be accomplished, to see this team transform from a slow, lethargic, undisciplined group to a fast, smart, and hungry team has been fascinating.
Murray has been the catalyst for the Penguins getting this far in the playoffs. Though Marc-Andre Fleury was the best player on the ice for Pittsburgh during the regular season, Murray has re-shaped this team and changes may come once the season is over.
After a few days off, the Stanley Cup Finals will begin on Monday at 8 p.m. Pittsburgh holds home-ice advantage and the series will start in Pittsburgh at Consol Energy Center.
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