The Penguins and Ottawa Senators arrive tonight at the most important game of the season – it may turn out to be the most significant game some of them will ever play – with a common agenda. Win one game. Use your skills to execute the tactics that have served you well for eight months, that have made your strategy more successful that those of the 27 teams who are gone from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the Senators, it’s about slowing the game down, taking advantage of mistakes and making their own net impenetrable. For the Penguins, it’s about using their speed to create space, taking advantage of their scoring ability and making every touch of the puck a moment of potential danger for opponents. We’ve seen both succeed in the past two weeks, along with an Ottawa tendency to gravitate toward cheap shots and a Pittsburgh tendency to largely ignore them.
But when 8:10 arrives tonight, the Penguins will also rely on something that is harder to pin down and describe, impossible to touch but also impossible to deny. It’s pretty clear the Penguins believe no challenge is beyond them, and they have six consecutive playoff series victories and a Cup to back it up. It’s pretty clear they believe in each other and the crazy notion that winning has everything to do with the 20 guys who happen to pull on a sweater that night and nothing to do with those who aren’t available to help.
Out goes Kris Letang for the season, in comes Ron Hainsey. Out goes Trevor Daley for four games, in comes Chad Ruhwedel. Out goes Ruhwedel for three games, in comes Mark Streit. Justin Schultz leaves, Daley comes back. Five players who have spent time on coach Mike Sullivan‘s top line have missed time: Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and, of course, Crosby himself. The Penguins’ No. 1 goaltender, Matt Murray, missed 11 playoff games. Etc., etc.
So Sullivan plugs the holes and the victories largely continue. Out of necessity, some forwards play left wing one night, right wing the next. Scott Wilson goes from being a healthy scratch to playing beside Evgeni Malkin. Marc-Andre Fleury replaces Murray and dominates. Rust moves from the third line to the first and back to the third. Jake Guentzel introduces himself to the post-season with nine goals in his first 11 games and now has gone seven games without one. Carter Rowney goes from the press box to Game 5 hero in a Conference Final series tied at 2.
And the victories largely continue. Even though you’ve gotten used to it all, this is the part where I remind you the hockey world doesn’t typically function like this. In the middle of it all, the Penguins have knocked off the No. 1 and No. 4 regular season teams, something many thought impossible without Letang – forget about the other injuries. It’s going to take 19 games if the Penguins earn the right to reach the Cup Final this spring, the most in team history. If the Cup playoffs are a marathon and a grind, the 2017 version has already been twice that for the Penguins.
GM Jim Rutherford and Sullivan, of course, deserve huge credit for building this team and instilling in it a clear philosophy about how to win. The players, however, have breathed life into it all. They expect a lot from each other and trust that the next guy up will deliver, regardless of the situation. It’s been incredible to watch for 18 games.
It may or may not be enough tonight. It’s a competition, and the Senators are determined, too. But the belief and resiliency the Penguins have is of a special variety, and it’s a powerful thing to call upon when you really need it.
Like in Game 7.