Thursday night was big for Pittsburgh.
But it was also big for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as well.
After the Penguins defeated Tampa Bay 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, head coach Mike Sullivan praised four key players that spent parts of this year with the club’s minor-league affiliate: Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl.
Lest we forget, Sullivan is a WBS guy too. He was coaching in the AHL prior to replacing Mike Johnston midway through the year, and seemed to know his minor league guys — the ‘Baby Pens’ — could produce at the NHL level.
“Those guys were huge,” Sullivan said in his presser. “I told our players after the game that one of the things I really loved about this game was it
took every single man in the lineup to win, and everybody made a significant contribution to helping us win, regardless of how many minutes they played.”
The most obvious hero was Rust, a rookie that scored both goals in the Game 7 win. The Notre Dame product had five goals in 55 career regular season games, but now has five goals in 17 playoff games this year.
“I love what he brings to this team and couldn’t be happier for him for his effort and his contribution as far as how he’s helped this team win for four or five months now,” Sullivan said of Rust. “To see him get rewarded with a couple of goals is a thrill for all of us because he’s such a great kid and he plays so hard.”
Murray, who turned 22 earlier this week, was also a key factor. He was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.
Sheary, the diminutive speedster, had two points through Games 5-7 and fired an impressive five shots on goal tonight. Kuhnhackl was a little quieter, but still chipped in with five points this postseason, and provided a physical presence.
Overall, the quartet provided something that Pittsburgh’s lacked in previous playoffs. The knock was always that if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin weren’t producing, the Pens weren’t winning. They just didn’t have the depth at forward to compensate when their star players went quiet.
That’s not a problem anymore.
“Guys made key plays at key times, subtle plays — plays on the wall, blocked shots, won face-offs, decisions with the puck, a good save, a big hit,” Sullivan explained. “There was a lot of those subtle plays throughout the course of the game that, I think, makes us the team that we are.”
This may have been Steve Stamkos‘ last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.
If it was, it didn’t go according to script.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.
Stamkos stunned the hockey world on Thursday night by making his playoff debut in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, returning from a two-month absence due to a blood clotting issue.
After undergoing vascular surgery and spending weeks on blood thinners, the captain was cleared to return for his team’s most crucial game of the season — one the Bolts lost, 2-1, the narrowest of margins.
The outcome didn’t take away from how Tampa’s players and coaches felt about Stamkos’ return
“He’s an extremely important player on our team, and we weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen, but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back, and I thought he did a great job.”
By the boxscore, Stamkos’ impact on the game was minimal. He received less than 12 minutes of ice time and finished minus-1. But he did have two shots on net — one of them showing just how dangerous, even in a limited capacity, No. 91 can be:
“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos told NHL.com. “It just went through him and out the other side.”
The focus for Stamkos and the Bolts now shifts to his contract situation. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the former 60-goal scorer projects to be the biggest star to hit the market since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter became UFAs in 2012.
Those two, you may recall, cashed in quite nicely, signing identical 13-year, $98 million deals.
So you can see why Stamkos’ future is of great interest across the league.
Of course, nobody has officially ruled out the 26-year-old’s return to Tampa Bay, and tonight’s drama probably strengthened some pretty serious emotional ties. Remember, this is the only team he’s ever known. The Lightning made Stamkos the first overall pick in 2008 and, six years later, the 10th captain in franchise history. He won two Rocket Richard trophies with the Bolts, and played in a pair of Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final.
He’s the team’s leader and face of the franchise. That’s not small stuff.
But in the end, it might not matter. It’s important to remember the Lightning got to this point without Stamkos because they’ve got incredible depth and some really good young players. Those young players will need to be paid too, and there might not be enough money under the cap for GM Steve Yzerman to make Stamkos an offer he can’t refuse.
Which is why it was hard not to listen to comments the Bolts made tonight, and wonder if they’re aware of what the future probably holds.
“We hope we can stick together, but you just never know,” Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Thought we were destined for some pretty special things.”
From the NHL:
The National Hockey League announced today the schedule for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, which begins Monday, May 30, in Pittsburgh.
Based on their superior regular-season point total, the Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins will host Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, as well as Games 5 and 7, if necessary.
The Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks will host Games 3 and 4, as well as Game 6, if necessary.
In the U.S., NBC will televise Game 1 and, if necessary, Games 5-7. NBCSN will broadcast Game 2. Television information for Games 3 and 4 will be announced at a later date.
Game 1 Monday, May 30 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 2 Wednesday, June 1 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBCSN
Game 3 Saturday, June 4 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 4 Monday, June 6 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 5* Thursday, June 9 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 6* Sunday, June 12 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose NBC
Game 7* Wednesday, June 15 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Media day will be on Sunday, May 29, time TBD. PHT will be on location for the entirety of the final, and a reminder that all games will also be broadcast on NBC Sports Radio.
PHT’s Mike Halford (that’s me) and Jason Brough will be providing analysis for both pre- and post-game shows.
For one night, anyway, the Steel City loved it some Rust.
In a thrilling and drama-filled affair, the unlikeliest of heroes — Pens rookie Bryan Rust — stole the show, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Rust’s heroics sent Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.
Seven years ago against the Red Wings, it was depth forward Max Talbot that etched himself into Penguins lore, scoring both goals in the decisive Game 7.
Rust pretty much did the same on Thursday.
The former Notre Dame standout opened the scoring in the second period, then took all of 30 seconds to wipe out Jonathan Drouin‘s equalizer. It was a performance that’ll long be remembered in Pittsburgh, as it was the organization’s first Game 7 victory since — you guessed it — 2009, when Talbot led the Pens to victory over Detroit.
As mentioned above, this contest was filled with drama. The theatrics actually began prior to puck drop, when Bolts captain Steve Stamkos was added to the lineup — his first game since being diagnosed with a blood clotting issue on Mar. 31.
Stamkos’ playoff debut was somewhat muted. He finished minus-1 with just 11:55 of ice time, though it’s tough to suggest much more could’ve been expected from a guy that hadn’t played in two months.
At times tonight, it seemed nothing, not even Stamkos’ presence, was going to slow Pittsburgh down. The Pens out-shot the Lightning 39-17 and had it not been for some terrific netminding from Andrei Vasilevskiy, the score could’ve been much worse.
That said, Tampa Bay did have its chances in the third period, and finished with a frantic flurry around Pens goalie Matt Murray (who wasn’t busy, but finished with 16 saves).
In the end, the Lightning will undoubtedly regret the missed opportunity to finish this series off in Game 6 at home.
The Penguins, meanwhile, have to be thrilled with the form shown over the final two games of this series. They’re playing some terrific hockey, getting contributions across the board and now staring at a Stanley Cup Final matchup with San Jose — which promises to be a fast, offensive and compelling series.
Game 1 gets underway at Consol on Monday. Have to imagine Pittsburgh can’t wait.