Pittsburgh had never won a Game 7 at home after losing Game 6. It took two overtimes, but the Pens bucked the trend and are headed back to the Stanley Cup final to face the Nashville Predators.
Chris Kunitz scored the game-winning goal at the 14:51 mark of the second OT to send the Penguins back for the second year in a row. It was a fluttering shot, but one Pittsburgh will remember for years to come.
Matt Murray made 27 saves on his 23rd birthday as the Penguins outshot the Senators 42-29 in Game 7. Pittsburgh got two goals from Kunitz and one from Justin Schultz to take the series, win the conference, overcome all their injuries and return to host the Stanley Cup yet again.
“I thought we deserved this one,” Murray said to Pierre McGuire after the game on NBCSN. “It took us a lot longer than we figured to get it done, but we deserved this one all the way through. We were the better team all series long, and we got it done.”
Pittsburgh is the only team in the last 15 years to make back-to-back finals, winning the Cup in 2009, a year after making the final. Going to back-to-back finals is rare in the last two decades. Dallas won the cup in 1999 and made the final in 2000, losing to the New Jersey Devils. The Devils then made the final again in 2001, losing to Colorado.
The last team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
The last time the Pens won back-to-back Cups was 1991 and 1992 — deep in the Lemieux era — which ended a run of teams winning consecutive Cups in regular fashion. From 1973 through 1992 there were just seven teams to win championships — Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, New York Islanders, Montreal and Philly — and only the Flames failed to win back-to-back Cups at least once.
After the Flyers won in ’74 and ’75, Montreal won four times in a row, followed by four titles for the Islanders, then four in five years from Edmonton — with another Montreal win in the middle — then Calgary, Edmonton again in 1990, and then the Pens twice.
“You just think of it is a great opportunity,” Pens captain Sidney Crosby said after the game, via NBCSN. “We don’t really look at it as back-to-back. There’s different guys here, but this is what you work hard for all year to give yourself a chance to play. This situation, it’s not something that happens very often, so it’s a great opportunity for us.”
Crosby may not look at it as back-to-back, but with a core group that’s in the final for the second-straight year, it is. For the city, it surely is. For Crosby, back-to-back or not, it’s the fourth time he and Evgeni Malkin have taken the Pens to the Stanley Cup final, and it gives him a chance to be thought of in a class with the game’s all-time greats.
And it almost didn’t happen. Here’s how the marathon Game 7 went down.
The first period was super boring, which is exactly what the Senators wanted. Then, in period two, things started to get wild.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 26, 2017
Two goals in 20 seconds turned a yawner into a barnburner, and things never let up the rest of the contest.
In the third period, the pace stayed electric. Justin Schultz, playing in his first game since Game 2 in this series, netted a blast to give the Penguins a late lead.
And yet, the Sens scored again, on a rebound by Ryan Dzingel who was inexplicably left wide open on the far post.
The Penguins had another golden chance to win it in regulation, but Malkin was unable to bury a sitter in front of the net.
And, so … overtime.
The Penguins outshot the Senators 8-2 in the first overtime, and it looked like Phil Kessel had won it, but the puck somehow flipped OVER the net before bouncing back out.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 26, 2017
Penguins fans — tired, nervous, drunk, whatever — went nuts because one angle shown in the arena made it look like the puck actually went in the net. Terrible towels were thrown onto the ice. Boos were robustly yelled. Things got ugly. Alas, for once, the referees seemed to get a call right, and the teams headed to a second overtime; the first time since 1994 a conference final Game 7 went to double OT.
That’s where Kunitz became the unlikely hero. He hadn’t scored a goal in more than 30 games, but Mike Sullivan shifted his lines to get Crosby on the ice more, pairing him with Conor Sheary and Kunitz for the second half of the game. It paid huge dividends, as Kunitz lit the lamp twice, including once to end the night, and put the Penguins four wins away from another parade. Crosby, predictably, had the game-winning assist.
“It’s a good feeling to compete the way we did,” Crosby said after the game. “We ended up getting the lead a couple of times and within minutes it was back to a tie game. So that’s not easy, but we just stuck with it. We had a ton of chances.”
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final is 8 p.m. Monday when the Pens host P.K. Subbing, Pekka Rinne and the Predators.