Pittsburgh's third round conferance final with Tampa Bay promised to be the most difficult series of the playoffs. Not only had Tampa Bay been to the Stanley Cup the year before, but Pittsburgh had lost every single game they had played against them this season. And everyone knows the team with the hottest goaltender typically wins. While the Pens were riding Matt Murray, himself pretty hot, especially for a rookie, and while the Pens had bested two of the best goalies in the league in Lundqvist and Washington's awesome Braden Holtby, Tampa Bay had a huge goalie in Ben Bishop, all 6'7" of him, blocking the net, making it hard to score from anywhere. While Holtby had led the league in wins and was possibly the best goalie in the league, Bishop had gone 35-21-4 with a 2.06 goals against average and in the playoffs, his goals against average had gotten even lower to 1.86. He wasn't even giving up two goals a game!
Tampa Bay had had a season similar to Pittsburgh's in that it was good, but they didn't win their division, coming in second. Their record was 46-31-5, but they were a good, veteran team and they could match Pittsburgh's speed and firepower. It was a worrisome matchup if you were a Pens fan. Still, by this point, if you were a Pens fan, you had to believe it was destiny by this point, so it didn't matter how many games it would take to win, the Pens would win the series and move on to the Cup.
Game One was in Pittsburgh. And it was all Tampa Bay. Even with Bishop getting his leg hurt early in the first and missing all of the rest of the series, his backup played just as well as he would have, if not better, and three first and second period goals by the Lightning led to a quick lead and only a last minute meaningless goal by Hornqvist kept the Pens from being shut out in a 3-1 loss. Very disappointing. The team vowed to be more focused in the next game and it was critical to win the second home game so that we wouldn't go on the road down 2-0. Game Two started out with a lot of scoring. The Pens struck first with Matt Cullen getting a goal less than five minutes into the game. Phil Kessel scored five minutes later to put the Pens up 2-0. Tampa Bay pushed back, however, and scored two quick goals near the end of the period to finish the first tied 2-2. And that's how regulation ended. So, overtime. Remember, it was essential that the Pens win this one. So the captain stepped up and with just 40 seconds gone in overtime, Sidney Crosby scored a critical goal to win the game and lead the Pens to Tampa with the series tied 1-1.
Game Three in Tampa featured a lot of late scores. While Carl Hagelin scored in the second for the Pens, the rest of the scoring came in the third. Tampa Bay scored two, but the Pens scored three more to win the game 4-2. Kessel, Crosby, and Kunitz all scored goals. Matt Murray had another exceptional game, posting 26 saves out of 28 shots for a .929 save percentage. He had been money all throughout the playoffs. There were rumblings, though, that the rookie might not be up to the challenge Tampa Bay represented, as it was a faster team than any we had played, and also quicker to score. Some were worried he might crack. I personally wasn't and thought we should ride a hot goalie for the whole distance, but I don't make the decisions. I thought putting in Marc-Andre Fleury would show a lack of confidence in Murray, and hurt his confidence at the wrong time, and Fleury, while a veteran, was very rusty, not having played in weeks due to a severe injury. In Game Four, the tables were turned as Tampa Bay came out on fire and demolished the Penguins, scoring the first four goals like Pittsburgh wasn't even on the ice. The Pens valiently fought back in the third period, with Kessel, Malkin, and Kunitz scoring goals, but the final score was Tampa Bay winning 4-3 to even the series at 2-2. This time Murray seemed to get lit up early. His overall numbers weren't too bad, but those four goals doomed him. He finished with 26 saves out of 30 shots, but he was replaced in the third by Fleury, who only faced seven shots and stopped them all.
Game Five returned to Pittsburgh and the home crowd was into it. And the home team wanted to win it. Both teams wanted to win it. Pittsburgh's Coach Sullivan did something strange though, and something I strongly disagreed with. He yanked Matt Murray, who had been having a great rookie season and post-season, after one semi-rough outing. He put it a very rusty Fleury and Fleury's rust showed in this game. Tampa Bay didn't score much, but Fleury's goals against average was horrible and it was a terrible decision. The only coaching series of the post-season of Sullivan's that I disagreed with.
Anyway, Pittsburgh's defenseman Brian Dumoulin led off the scoring with his first playoff goal with one second left in the first period. It was a shocker because he just doessn't score. For the year, he had scored literally no goals. None. No one expected him to shoot, which is probably why it went in. Early in the second, Patrick Hornqvist scored another goal to put the Pens up 2-0 and the crowd was loving it. Then disaster struck! Tampa Bay scored two goals about a minute apart midway through the period to tie the game, which put a damper on the crowd, but with less than a minute left, Kunitz scored another goal to put the Pens ahead 3-2 going into the third. Unfortunately, with under four minutes left in the game, the Lightning tied it up and it went into overtime. There, with less than a minute gone in the game, Lightning star Tyler Johnson stroked one past Fleury for the 4-3 win and a huge 3-2 series lead. One more win and Tampa Bay returns to the Stanley Cup. Not too many teams come from two games behind to win a conference championship series to make it to the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh would now have to do that. And what of the Fleury experiment? He stopped 21 of 25 goals for an .840 save percentage, a horrible number, and one which will get you a loss in the playoffs every time. Frankly, he didn't deserve a start in the playoffs, not with Murray playing lights out ahead of him and just because Murray had had a shaky game, well, he's a rookie, he's not perfect, but he's darn well been near perfect for the past 30 games and the Pens wouldn't have gotten this far without Murray in goal so it was time to go back to Murray for Game Six.
Game Six was a must-win game for Pittsburgh, now back in Florida with the Lightning fans getting ready to celebrate what was rightfully theirs. But first the game must be played. The only scoring in the first period came late, courtesy of Phil Kessel. In the second, it was more Pens with goals from Letang and Crosby. However, in the third, Tampa Bay's Brian Boyle scored twice to make it interesting, so it was with much relief that with a little more than two minutes left, rookie Bryan Rust roared down the line and slapped a shot on in to help the Pens go up 4-2. Nick Bonino scored a meaningless goal with less than a minute left for a 5-2 win, one which evened the series 3-3 and made it a one game series. And Matt Murray? How did he do back? All he did was stop 28 of 30 shots for a .933 save percentage, a very good figure for any goalie, let alone a rookie in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Game Seven was played in Pittsburgh in a pressure packed atmosphere. Everyone knew both teams had to win to advance. Everyone knew both teams had to beat the other to make it to the Stanley Cup. Everyone knew that both teams had sacrificed so much just to get to this point in the season, that to get this far and not make it to the Cup would be devestating. Everything was riding on this game. No one scored in the first period. Tight nerves? In the second period, both teams started scoring. Pittsburgh rookie Bryan Rust started where he left off in the previous game by shooting in a goal less than two minutes into the period for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead. Eight tense minutes later, Tampa Bay scored to tie it up. Less than a minute after that, Rust again shot one past the surprised Tampa Bay goalie for a 2-1 Pittsburgh league. And that's how the final score stood up. There was no more scoring in the game. Matt Murray, of course, played a big role, as he stopped 16 of 17 shots for a .941 save percentage. The Pens won 2-1 and won the series 4-3 and were going back to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009! It felt like destiny. And the team they'd be playing in the Stanley Cup? The San Jose Sharks, playing in their first Cup in club history. Another tough team with inspiration and talent.