Pens ‘play the right way’ in Game 7 victory
The speech from coach Mike Sullivan to the Penguins that preceded their 2-1 win over Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals included a few overtures to emotion. But it also harped on the same simple concepts they heard at the first practices Sullivan ran in mid-December.
Winger Conor Sheary, perhaps as well-versed with Sullivan-isms as any of the Penguins because of his time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and also as adherent as any to the coach’s principles, just smiled in the wake of the win at the wisdom of a favored but exhausted phrase, “Play the right way.”
“Maybe (it’s) a little bit old,” he said. “But he’s right. When you get every guy in the room to play the right way, I think we’re a dangerous team.”
The identity of the Penguins, molded by Sullivan and his staff over several mid-winter months, became painfully obvious as they exhausted the Lightning with puck possession, particularly during a second period when they held a 21-5 edge in shots on goal and 32-9 margin in shot attempts.
“Tonight might’ve been the most complete 60-minute effort that we had,” Sullivan said. “To a man, I thought we continued to play the game that we’ve tried to play here for four or five months now, where we play to our strengths. We’ve talked all year long about an identity and a certain way to play that gives us the best chance to win.”
As Sullivan, general manager Jim Rutherford and several of the players emphasized throughout the second half of the regular season and again in the playoffs, speed comes in many forms. Tampa Bay took a lead in the series because of its end-to-end, quick-strike transition play. But the Penguins, particularly after bolstering their roster with fleet-footed skaters from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and trading for Carl Hagelin, became proficient at chasing pucks or pressuring opponents in both open ice and tight spaces.
“I think we wore them down a little bit after that second period,” winger Patric Hornqvist said. “Their defense had to play a lot of hard minutes because we had a lot of possession, a lot of power plays. I think in the end, that’s where we won the game.”
Aided by the Lightning’s four second-period penalties, Sidney Crosby and company led an onslaught of offensive-zone surges.
In the span of 28 seconds during the period’s fifth minute, Phil Kessel put two shots on goal during four-on-four action, and Crosby added a shot and an attempt. Another 28-second span during the period’s 12th minute yielded three five-on-five shot attempts, one of which found goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
With Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan in the penalty box for two minutes for high-sticking, the Penguins twice produced flurries off net-front activity. Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Sheary all put pucks on goal. Crosby, Hornqvist and Justin Schultz also fired away.
Seemingly, only the absence of scoring touch from normally reliable Penguins shooters saved the Lightning, who mustered just five shots and nine attempts during the game’s middle 20 minutes.
Sheary put a shot at the front of the crease into the chest of a kneeling Victor Hedman.
Kessel double-clutched on a wide-open backside look at the goal mouth.
Crosby, Hornqvist and Eric Fehr all missed the net on shot attempts from within 20 feet, according to the NHL’s tracking data.
“We kept pushing,” Hagelin said. “Created a lot of chances. We deserved more than two goals, but their goalie played great.”
Those chances, though not fruitful, still created a stark contrast to what Tampa Bay generated. And none of the Penguins’ lines relented.
Crosby and his linemates, Hornqvist and Sheary, finished with some of their most lopsided five-on-five possession metrics of the season — the Penguins generated 15 shot attempts and allowed three during Sheary’s even-strength time, and the diffentials for Hornqvist and Crosby were 19-5 and 17-8, respectively, according to www.hockeystats.ca.
But the lines centered by Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen also found ways to wreak havoc.
“We play a really fun style,” Cullen said. “We pressure the puck everywhere. I think we use our speed and our feet and our instincts in all three zones. For me, I love that. I really like playing like that. That goes to my strengths. It’s come comfortably to me, and I think to all of the guys on our team. We have a lot of guys that like to play with speed and instinct.”
In other words, what Sullivan considers the right way.