WASHINGTON — For the last period of Game 5, all of Game 6, and the opening two minutes of Game 7, the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like a group of players that had forgotten how they won the Stanley Cup 11 months ago.
Then in the fourth and fifth minute of Game 7, the memory of how to succeed all came back to them.
“That might be the best game that we’ve played in the playoffs to this point,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins downed the Washington Capitals 2-0 in Game 7. “I thought that was the closest thing to the Penguins’ identity that we’ve seen in the playoffs so far.”
After being dominated by the Capitals for four periods in two losses that tied the best-of-seven series 3-3, the Penguins rediscovered the level of composure and efficiency they commanded in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup.
“Obviously a lot of people counted us out after last game, and I can understand it,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said. “We didn’t have a good game and they ran all over us. It was a credit to the character in the room to respond the way we did and come out and throw together a good game.”
It was actually an exceptional game. After surviving the Capitals storming of the castle in the opening minutes, the Penguins did a much better job moving the puck out of their zone.
In the third period, when the Capitals were looking to mount a full charge, the Penguins limited Washington to six shots on goal.
While all of this was going on, Marc-Andre Fleury, the goalie that likely will be traded this summer, played brilliantly in net, making 29 saves, for his first shutout of the postseason.
“He’s been our best player the whole playoffs,” said Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist, who scored one of Pittsburgh’s goals.
Cullen said Fleury “stole” multiple games in this series. “And kept us in a lot of others,” Cullen said. “We give him a lot of credit. You can’t ask for a better teammate.”
What makes the Game 7 triumph against Washington more impressive is that the Penguins have been undermined by injuries throughout the postseason.
They are still without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang, and key puck-moving defenseman Trevor Daley was out for Game 7. In this series, they played one game without Sidney Crosby and 23-goal scorer Conor Sheary.
Fleury is only playing because Matt Murray was injured an hour before the playoffs began. He’s healthy now, but good luck getting the job back from Fleury, who has a .927 save percentage in this postseason.
The Capitals were the No. 1 regular-season team. Now, one of the Penguins’ challenges would be to guard against over-confidence. But it seems like this team is too experienced to do that.
The Penguins know they hadn’t played as impressively as they did last season when they won the Stanley Cup. That’s on their mind as they continue their quest to become the first team in the salary cap era to win back-to-back titles.
As a group we know there’s another gear,” Cullen said. “And I think we’re all just really happy we get a chance to find it in this next series.”