PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins are now four wins away from their first Stanley Cup title since 2009.
Despite the emotional return of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, the Penguins defeated Tampa Bay, 2-1, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday night, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to play the San Jose Sharks in a series that begins on Monday night in Pittsburgh.
It’s the first Game 7 they’ve won at home since 1995, breaking a four-game losing streak.
Rookie Bryan Rust, who had a breakaway goal in the Penguins’ Game 6 win in Tampa, scored two goals to give him five for the playoffs. Rookie goalie Matt Murray, the team's backbone yet again, made 16 saves, including a few key stops in the third period.
But it was a total team effort from the Penguins as they dominated puck possession for most of the game and stifled the Lightning attack for the second straight contest.
That included Stamkos, a surprise return for the Lightning after having been out since March 31 following surgery for a blood clot. He played just under 12 minutes and had five shot attempts, including one in the second period when Murray stopped him on a breakaway.
But the Penguins proved too much for the defending Eastern Conference champs.
Bryan Rust put the Penguins on the board first with a wrister from the high slot.
Seeing the Lightning caught in a change, Olli Maatta sent a long lead pass to Evgeni Malkin, who slipped the disc to Chris Kunitz near the Lightning blue line. Rust motored in alone with the Lightning hustling back from the bench. He lifted his leg and snapped a shot that beat Vasilevskiy high to the glove side at 1:55 of the second period.
The next nine minutes were pure domination from the Penguins, pressing the Lightning in their own zone to the point where even a routine clear was taxing. Tampa Bay needed someone to make a play. And that someone ended up being a guy who wanted off the team midway through the season.
The sequence started with a confident zone exit by Valtteri Filppula, controlling the puck before dishing to Jonathan Drouin. From there, the dazzling young forward took over: Cutting across the offensive zone and unleashing an absolute laser beam that beat Matt Murray to tie the game 1-1.
The tie lasted 30 seconds.
After Ben Lovejoy dumped the puck into the Lightning zone, Vasilevskiy tried to freeze the it against the side of his net. Except the puck hit his glove and slid right to where Rust was able to pop it into the goal for the 2-1 lead at 10:06 of the second.
The Lightning pushed hard in the third period, but to no avail. Murray maintained the lead, winning his second straight start after being benched in Game 5 in favor of Marc-Andre Fleury.
Not many observers would have put the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final earlier this season when they were floundering under former coach Mike Johnston. It took his firing in December in favor of Mike Sullivan, some shrewd additions by GM Jim Rutherford, some playoffs-saving goaltending from Murray after Fleury's injury and some clutch performances by the team’s star players in the postseason, but the Penguins are within reach of the Cup again.
As for the Lightning, they wasted another stellar performance by Vasilevskiy (37 saves), who was so good in replacing the injured Ben Bishop and the reason this series went seven games. But now, at season’s end, Tampa is left with one critical question:
Was this Game 7 loss free-agent Steven Stamkos’s last game with the Lightning?
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