PITTSBURGH – The New York Rangers have momentum, a unified locker room and Henrik Lundqvist.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the world’s best players and a coach who could be needing a win to keep his job.
No pressure or anything, just a Game 7 that could alter the long-term future of one of the NHL’s most stable franchises and boost the immediate prospects of an emotionally charged group rallying around one of the game’s most respected veterans.
Looking overmatched and overwhelmed while falling behind 3-1 to the Penguins four games into the Eastern Conference semifinals, it’s the Rangers who head to Game 7 today night looking like the team ready to move on.
Martin St. Louis, just days removed from the death of his mother, scored the first of New York’s three goals in Game 6 to provide the jolt that carried the Rangers all the way back from the brink.
The way St. Louis figures it, he is simply repaying the guys in a dressing room he’s still learning after arriving in New York after a trade with Tampa Bay in February.
“I think when something like that happens to one person to see the support you get from everybody else, it really makes it real,” he said. “There’s not phoniness about the family feeling you want to create.”
It’s a feeling that ebbs and flows in Pittsburgh.
Dominant and disruptive to start the series, the Penguins have spent the last six periods giving New York every reason to believe it can rally from a 3-1 deficit for the first time in franchise history.
Center Sidney Crosby has just one goal in 12 games. The power play – which tied with Washington for the league’s best in the regular season – has converted just one of its past 19 chances.
And now coach Dan Bylsma finds himself 60 minutes away from either taking the Penguins back to the conference finals for the third time in six years or possibly looking for work.
Not that Bylsma is ready to talk about the big picture yet. The task at hand is worrisome enough.
“These are the ones you dream about playing,” Bylsma said. “This is one we’re going to remember.”
The memories haven’t been kind to the Penguins in deciding games on home ice. Pittsburgh is just 2-6 at home in Game 7s in franchise history, including losses to Montreal in 2010 and Tampa Bay three years ago.
The Penguins played the entire series against the Lightning without Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who sat out with injuries. Both have been healthy this time around, skating alongside each other in the hopes they’ll provide offense. Only Malkin, who has six goals in 13 games, has delivered.
Though Crosby ended a 13-game playoff goal drought in Game 3, he spent as much time in Game 6 jawing with the Rangers and getting water squirted on him by Lundqvist as he did trying to become the magnetic force that can sometimes change the course of a game with his will.
Crosby insists he is healthy even while averaging just .75 points per game during the postseason, well below his career playoff average of 1.28. The league’s leading scorer received a pep talk from Penguins co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the aftermath of Game 6. Having a quick chat is nothing new for Crosby and his mentor.
“He definitely has a pretty good understanding of dealing with the pressure,” Crosby said.
So does Lundqvist.
The goaltender thrives when the pressure is its highest. He was New York’s best player early in the series, the main reason 3-2, 2-0 and 3-0 losses didn’t look worse.
When it looked as if the Rangers were out of it after falling behind 3-1, he responded by stopping 67 of the next 69 shots he faced and is 9-2 with a 1.35 goals-against average with the Rangers facing elimination. The three-time All-Star is 4-1 in Game 7s.
“He takes his game up to another level,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said. “But this Game 7 against this team, it’s going to have to be a team level. It’s going to have to be everybody taking their game to another level.”
The same can be said in the Penguins dressing room, which could have a very different look. If the team built to become a dynasty after winning it all in 2009 falls short of the Stanley Cup finals for the fifth straight season.
The Penguins won that title in Game 7 on the road against Detroit, the defending champions. To take the next step back they have to find that magic at home.
“We worked hard all year to get home ice in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “To get to this point we’ve got to look at this like an opportunity and make the most of it.”