Starkey: This Game 7 will be different |
Breakfast With Benz

Starkey: This Game 7 will be different

If you know anything about Penguins history, you know Game 7s at home have not gone well.

Not well at all.

Really, really not well.

Did I mention they haven’t gone well?

Roll through the mental movie reels, and horrifying characters such as David Volek, Tom Fitzgerald and Henrik Lundqvist come leaping out like so many Freddie Kruegers.

For long-time Penguins fans, the phrase “Game 7 at home” is liable to cause nausea, fever and severe rashes.

The three-nothing series lead against the Islanders in 1975 and the 3-1 leads against the Rangers in 2014 and Lightning in 2011? The chance for a repeat Cup in 2010 and a threepeat Cup in 1993? Those all died with soul-crushing Game 7 losses on home ice.

The Penguins are 2-7 all-time at home in Game 7, including 0-2 at Consol Energy Center. They have lost five such games in a row. Their most recent Game 7 here occurred two springs ago and marked the final game of the Marcel Goc era, not to mention the Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma era.

Lundqvist stoned the Penguins with 35 saves, and the unstoppable Brian Boyle opened the scoring in a 2-1 Rangers win.

But you know what? A closer inspection of that game reveals why this one — Game 7 against the Lightning and the unstoppable Boyle on Thursday night — promises to be different.

It will be different because the Penguins are different. Radically so. Different coach. Different players. Entirely different mindset.

That team was fragile. This one is resilient. That team was morose. This one is ebullient. That team was slow. This one is blazing fast. That team was thin, this one ocean-deep.

Finally, that team was in full-collapse mode by Game 7 whereas this one figures to be buoyed by a Game 6 performance that separated it from so many recent Penguins teams in this respect: It stared elimination in the eye and spit instead of wilting.

You want a good omen? The only other times in franchise history the Penguins won on the road in Game 6 to force Game 7 at home (1991 against New Jersey, ’95 against Washington), they won Game 7 by a combined score of 7-0.

Credit coach Mike Sullivan for much of this. He keeps telling this players to “write your own story.” Ancient history doesn’t matter. Recent history doesn’t matter. What happened five hours ago — or five seconds ago — doesn’t matter. This guy lives in the present like the Dalai Lama and has his players doing the same.

Sullivan’s first objective upon replacing Mike Johnston was to help his leaders rekindle their passion for the game and let it show.

It showed in Game 6, didn’t it though?

The transformation started at the top. By way of several strokes of genius and an uncanny knack for correcting his mistakes, Jim Rutherford has given Sullivan all of the options he needs. The Shero/Bylsma lineup for Game 7 two years ago was dotted with the likes of Robert Bortuzzo, Craig Adams, Brian Gibbons, Tanner Glass, Goc, Joe Vitale and Rob Scuderi. Nice men all, but hardly the makings of a championship roster.

Only five of the 19 players who started for the Penguins that night will be in the starting lineup Thursday: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Olli Maatta.

Do you think the Penguins could have used, say, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino or Carl Hagelin that night?

The Penguins are so far superior to the team they fielded just 24 months ago, it’s scary. They’re a better team than the Lightning when their stars are fully engaged, as was the case in Game 6.

Not that anything is guaranteed. Far from it. The Lightning are an irrepressible group that has won five consecutive Eastern Conference series and participated in 41 playoff games in the past year.

Like some of the old, great Soviet teams, the Lightning can go for stretches without a sniff and then beautifully bury the first chance they get. They are remarkably opportunistic.

You might have heard anything can happen in a Game 7?

It’s true. Anything can. But it’s the Penguins’ turn to get a little manna from 7. New coach, new team, new result:

Penguins, 4-2.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at [email protected].

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