Given the way the first six games of the series had played out — and especially the past two — it seemed as if the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to steal one more game if they were going to beat the Washington Capitals and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Capitals had carried the play, seemed to be getting stronger, and looked as if they might actually exorcise their postseason demons and finally beat their long-time rivals.
Fleury was once again spectacular in the Penguins’ 2-0 Game 7 win, continuing what might be the best postseason performance of his career.
His play has been the one constant for the Penguins this postseason and is probably the single biggest reason they are still in the playoffs.
Nothing changed in his performance.
The one thing that did change on Wednesday was the fact the team in front of him ended up playing what was almost certainly its best game of the playoffs. Especially when it came to their third period performance.
At times they actually started to resemble the team that won the Stanley Cup one year ago. It was the first time all postseason they had that look as they were able to establish offensive zone time, looked aggressive on the forecheck, and didn’t have to rely on their goalie to steal a game for them.
The Penguins have spent most of the season defending in their own zone, getting badly outshot, outchanced and just looking like a team that was constantly in desperation mode trying to hold on, then capitalizing on what few counter-attack opportunities they were able to get. It was a huge change from the team we saw a year ago. It was also not exactly a great recipe for continued, long-term success.
Goaltending (both theirs, and the sub-par play at times at the other end of the ice) was the key.
That all changed on Wednesday, which was just the second time this postseason the Penguins actually outshot an opponent, and it was at no point more obvious than in the third period.
With the Penguins opening the period up by a single goal, a moment when the Capitals should have been able to push the play with their season on the line, the Penguins ended up outshooting them by an 11-6 margin (and adding to the lead). It was a performance that was very reminiscent of the way they closed out Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in San Jose one year ago when they held the Sharks to just two shots on goal.
But they showed on Wednesday they are still capable of getting there, and they picked the best possible time to reach it.
Now they move on to face the Ottawa Senators for a chance to return to the Stanley Cup Final.