WASHINGTON – Marc-Andre Fleury and his teammates played their best game of the playoffs so far, and it feels like just the beginning for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The defending Stanley Cup champions beat the Washington Capitals 2-0 in Game 7 with their strongest 60-minute performance yet thanks in large part to Fleury's 29 saves. But with the Ottawa Senators up next in the Eastern Conference finals, the scary part for the other teams left may be that Pittsburgh is just now finding its groove.
"I think we can play a lot better," veteran center Matt Cullen said. "As a group, we know there's another gear, and I think we're all just really happy we get a chance to find it in this next series."
Game 1 against Ottawa will be Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins have been without defenseman Kris Letang and starting goaltender Matt Murray. Defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Carl Hagelin are also injured. Sidney Crosby was out briefly with a concussion. Yet Pittsburgh showed the resilience of a champion in closing out the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals.
The Penguins have proved they can rise to any challenge, no matter how big.
"A lot of us have played together and been through some big games together, so I think there's a certain level of trust and belief," Crosby said. "You still got to go out there and do it. That doesn't guarantee anything."
The second-round series against Washington felt like the Stanley Cup Final, with the winner emerging as the title favorite. The Penguins are battered and bruised going into the East final against Ottawa and face a different kind of challenge in the third round.
"They've got some depth," Crosby said of the Senators. "They're very confident in their game right now. They're pretty stingy defensively and their goaltender's been playing really well. ... They believe in their group and the way they play, and it'll be a good test for us."
Pittsburgh has passed every test so far, winning despite being outshot by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and then by the Capitals. Fleury is 8-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
"That's what it takes to win at this time of year," Sullivan said of Fleury's Game 7 shutout. "That's what it takes to win championships. And this guy is a battle-tested guy."
Battle-tested from a trip to the 2008 Cup Final and a victory there in 2009 and by being supplanted by Murray. Fleury's resurgence is reason enough for the Penguins to believe they can win it all again, but there are plenty of others, most notably the depth that Pittsburgh can rely on amid a torrent of injuries.
"We've been through so much the last two years here," forward Patric Hornqvist said. "It's been injuries, up and down to almost not making the playoffs and then we go and win the Cup. And now we have our backs against the wall again and we come up with the best game so far of the season. ... We trust ourselves in here."
There's no lack of trust or belief in the Penguins locker room, not even after losing consecutive games to cough up a 3-1 series lead to the Capitals. When Washington seemed to have all the momentum, the Penguins punched back. Now they're eight victories away from another Cup.
"They showed a lot of resiliency," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I'll tell you what, they're a good hockey team. You can see why they have a pedigree of a Stanley Cup champion."
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