Rangers vs. Penguins Game 7: Keys for Pittsburgh to Win
The Pittsburgh Penguins thought that this semifinal series was over after Game 4. So did Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, Craig Morgan of FoxSports.com and Colin Horgan of The Guardian. Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times struggled to find positives for the New York Rangers before the series even began.
Yet the Blueshirts saluted the fans at Madison Square Garden following Game 6, not as a final farewell, but as a way of implying "we'll be back." This after winning two straight games to pull to a 3-3 tie with the Penguins, forcing a pivotal Game 7.
The Rangers are now playing with house money. The team they're up against and the entire hockey world thought they were goners on May 8 after they were beaten 4-2 in Game 4. Instead of rolling over, the Blueshirts rallied around Martin St. Louis, got Chris Kreider rolling in Game 5 and found a way to pull even.
All the momentum is in New York's favor as the series shifts back to Pittsburgh for Game 7. There are numerous things that the Penguins need to do to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. They are out of chances gimmie' now, and it's time to either attack the notion that they're a team without killer instinct or live with it.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com and are accurate through Game 6 of this series.
Get a Better Start
This has been a key for the Penguins since the first round. The team developed a bad habit of coming out slow against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and haven't been able to break free in the second round against the Rangers.
Columbus wasn't particularly good at defending leads, so Pittsburgh was able to climb back into games with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third period. That strategy hasn't worked in the second round, and the players know it.
Emotions run high, but I don't think that's why we lost [Sunday]. We put ourselves in a bad position early on and had to fight back to try to get back... I mean, it's a matter of taking advantage of your chances and capitalizing, trying to go to the right areas and finding ways to create. Sometimes it's easier than others, but ultimately you've got to find a way.
The team that has scored first has won every game of this series. The Penguins don't just need a stronger start with more jump. They need to out-hustle the Rangers from the opening faceoff and not let up through 60 minutes.
Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal—it's time for one of the big-name forwards to step up and get the offense going early.
Contend with Chris Kreider
Chris Kreider has given the Rangers the edge they need to compete with the Penguins offensively. As Steve Zipay of Newsday wrote, "[t]he NHL playoffs aren't poker, but in a way, Chris Kreider has been an ace in the hole."
One that Pittsburgh apparently didn't see coming.
After making his rusty return in Game 4, Kreider played an outstanding contest in Game 5, propelling New York to a victory with a handful of remarkable plays, including one that saw him dive to maintain puck possession on the power play moments before scoring the go-ahead goal seconds later.
Kreider isn't the driving force behind New York's attack, but he symbolically represents the difference between the Rangers and the Penguins right now. The 23-year-old plays hard, never lets up when he's in pursuit of the puck, and he's there for timely goals.
Pittsburgh hasn't been able to match any of these traits since winning Game 4. They've looked remarkably uninspired through long stretches, and have been soundly outplayed for periods at a time since getting outshot 35-15 in Game 3.
They've said the right things in the press, but continue to struggle to match New York's will to win. That doesn't show up on stat sheets, but a glance at the tied series is all the evidence one needs.
Do Anything Necessary to Rattle Henrik Lundqvist
Big-money players are supposed to win big-time games for their teams. Henrik Lundqvist is worth every cent he makes then. "King" is 4-0 in his last four Game 7s, and he's posted a .973 save percentage across those contests. (h/t to Dan Rosen of NHL.com)
That's a collective gulp you hear sweeping across Steel City. Lundqvist is an Olympic-caliber netminder that knows how to play when the game is on the line. Can the same be said for Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been good but not great in the second round?
New York's players have done anything they can to rattle "Flower." The Penguins need to reach out and touch Lundqvist a bit in Game 7. This isn't an avocation for Marcel Goc to take a full head of steam and run the goalie.
It's just a call to make him uncomfortable. Every time the puck is deep in the offensive zone, a Penguin should have his hockey pants right in Lundqvist's face. No goalie likes to have their space taken away, and the ploy seems to be getting to the Swede.
Avoid taking penalties, but snow showers and bumps are all fair game.
If You Like Playing for Dan Bylsma, Then Act Like It
Fans don't run the Penguins organization. Yet there's been increasing pressure from all corners on head coach Dan Bylsma to prove that he can get Pittsburgh back to the promised land—something that he's been struggling to do since 2009.
The reality of the situation is that teams don't typically win the Stanley Cup once every three years. It takes time and patience, but the NHL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and Bylsma in on the brink of allowing the Penguins to collapse for the second straight year.
After getting taken apart by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final last season, the Penguins were quick to say that Bylsma would be back. At what point is the bench boss responsible for the general disposition of his team though?
For a team that is accused of having no killer instinct, losing three straight games after going up 3-1 in a series is a death sentence. There'd be no hiding from the implications and the fallout. It's not a sure thing that Bylsma would be fired if the Penguins complete this catastrophe, but the odds of him surviving don't seem good.
If the Penguins have any respect for the man whatsoever, they'll go out and save his job in Game 7.