Bryan Rust scored a pair of second-period goals and Matt Murray stopped 16 shots to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night to send the franchise to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.
Pittsburgh will host Western Conference champion San Jose in Game 1 of the final Monday night.
Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs for the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves, but it wasn't enough to send Tampa Bay back to the Cup Final for a second straight year. Captain Steven Stamkos had two shots in his return from a two-month layoff while dealing with a blood clot.
The Penguins avoided elimination with a borderline dominant 5-2 victory in Game 6 that provided a snapshot of the formula that fueled their rise through the Eastern Conference standings shortly after coach Mike Sullivan's arrival in mid-December. Sullivan calls it "playing the right way," a way abetted by the influx of speed brought in by general manager Jim Rutherford. That group includes Rust, who forced his way onto the roster thanks to feverish skating and a relentlessness that belies his nondescript 5-foot-11 frame.
That effort — or "desperation level" as captain Sidney Crosby calls it — provided the Penguins with the boost they needed to overcome a bit of unfortunate history and the return of Stamkos. Pittsburgh had dropped five straight Game 7s at home, including a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in 2011 in a series in which both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed due to injury. That loss had become symbolic of the franchise's postseason shortcomings following that gritty run to the Cup in 2009 that culminated with a Game 7 win in Detroit that was supposed to be the launching pad of a dynasty.
Seven long years later, with an entirely new cast around mainstays Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are finally heading back.
It hardly came easy. Vasilevskiy, a revelation while filling in for injured Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, spent most of the night facing barrage after barrage as Pittsburgh controlled the puck and the pace of play for long stretches. Not even the return of Stamkos, who missed eight weeks while recovering from surgery to fix a blood clot near his right collarbone, could give Tampa Bay a boost as it sought a second straight appearance in the final round.
The 26-year-old practically chased Vasilevskiy onto the ice and played 11:55, his best chance coming on a breakaway in the second period in which his slap shot from the right circle hit Murray and trickled wide.
Yet he was outshone — as was everyone else inside an electric Consol Energy Center — by a 24-year-old who managed all of five goals in 55 regular season games, a total he's matched in just 17 games during the postseason. And perhaps even more surprising than the amount of success Rust has enjoyed during the playoffs is when he's done the most damage. He collected two goals and an assist in a series closeout win over the New York Rangers in the opening round.
Just over a month later, Rust was at it again.
He gave the Penguins the lead 1:55 into the second when he raced down the slot, took a feed from Kunitz and beat Vasilevskiy over his glove. Drouin's fourth goal of the series tied it at 9:36 of the second, a wicked wrist shot from the circle that zipped by Murray and seemed to blunt Pittsburgh's momentum.
Only it didn't.
All of 30 seconds later, the Penguins were back in front. Ben Lovejoy's slap shot from the point caromed off the end boards to the right of the net. Rust jabbed at it, squeezing it between Vasilevskiy's left arm and his body.
The Penguins kept coming. Only the spectacular play of the 21-year-old Vasilevskiy kept the Lightning in it. Pittsburgh outshot Tampa Bay 21-5 in the second period alone, yet couldn't extend its advantage.
Their season on the brink, the Lightning recovered but Murray never wavered. His teammates in front of him kept Tampa Bay from getting in his way and when the final horn blared, Pittsburgh's metamorphosis from the blahs of December to the madness of May was complete.