By Matt Popchock

To the outsiders, this series couldn’t have been scripted much better unless Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were in it, and after the last two games, I can virtually assure you the Penguins wish more than ever that were the case.

Nevertheless, they have a chance to extend what has already been a respectable run with those two absent for half the 2010-11 season, a run during which various other key personnel came and went through a revolving hospital door.

Some might say it’s a travesty if this Penguin team becomes just the second in franchise history to fritter away a three-games-to-one lead in a playoff series.  Others might say the simple fact they are in this position after all they have had to overcome is impressive.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, some might say this is their biggest game since Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, which saw future Penguin Ruslan Fedotenko lead the team to its only championship.  Others might say, regardless of what happens tonight, it’s been a successful year in the Sunshine State, because head coach Guy Boucher and general manager Steve Yzerman have put that team back on the map.

However you look at it, Game 7 will be a memorable ending to this first-round script for one of these teams.  Game 7’s present all the classic literary scenarios: man versus man (Penguins versus Lightning), man versus nature (will the ice conditions be better at CONSOL Energy Center?), man versus society (will the crowd become a factor, or be silenced once again?), and man versus himself (which team can play the most mistake-free hockey?).

Unfortunately, if history is any guide, it’ll be a little more memorable for the road team.  The Penguins are 7-5 all time in Game 7’s, but their only two home-ice victories in that spot came in the 1991 Patrick Division Semifinals against New Jersey en route to the team’s first Cup, and the 1995 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Washington, in which the Pens climbed out of a 3-1 series hole.

In order to exorcise the ghosts of Ed Westfall, David Volek, Tom Fitzgerald, Mike Cammalieri, and, lest we forget, future Penguin Ken Wregget, here’s what must happen:

*The Penguins’ defense has had the weight of the world shift to their shoulders since the first weekend of February, when Malkin joined Crosby on long-term injured reserve.  Guys like Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, along with newcomers Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, persevered, and up until Game 5 of this series, were playing exactly the way Ray Shero has paid them to.  However, seeing the Penguins get outscored 12-4 in the last two games, to say nothing of a 5-1 schooling in Game 2, has left some, including me, wondering if they have simply hit a wall.

Does the Penguins’ defense still have enough gas in the tank after having to step up without Sid and Geno to win one more game?  We’re about to find out.  Each of the games the Pens have lost has been affected by preventable plays.  The Lightning got the ball rolling in Game 2 when Letang got caught pinching on Eric Brewer’s goal.  Steven Stamkos put Game 5 in Tampa’s back pocket when no one knocked him off the puck before his second-chance strike.  The Pens gave up a deceptive go-ahead goal to Sean Bergenheim because of a lack of puck-side help along their goal line, and an all-too-easy one to Steve Downie because no one was around to support a scrambling Marc-Andre Fleury.

The story of Games 1, 3, and 4 was the defense quieting Tampa Bay’s dynamic–and much healthier–offense.  The story of Games 2, 5, and 6 was that offense overwhelming the Penguins.  To clean up the mess in Game 7, the Penguins’ “D” needs to put hats on hats and play the same aggressive, smart, responsible hockey in their own zone that got them here.  And a couple more Secret Service blocks from Michalek wouldn’t hurt either.

*With the possible exceptions of Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman, every coach in Penguin history has played favorites at one time or another.  For that matter, every active head coach in the NHL has done so.  Dan Bylsma can deny it up and down all he wants, but in that respect, he’s no different from the other 29 bench bosses.

A number of my peers have expressed their desire to see Eric Tangradi and Deryk Engelland on the ice for Game 7, and to see less, if any, ice time for Matt Niskanen, Ben Lovejoy, Chris Conner, Mark Letestu, and, in some cases, Alex Kovalev.  No coach in his right mind directly gives in to the influence of journalists, columnists, or talk show hosts.  But in this case, they’re not just the “dirty stinkin’ media.”  They’re absolutely right.  I want to see Tangradi and Engelland in for Game 7, and I want to see either Niskanen, Lovejoy, Conner, and/or Letestu out.  But based on my own observations, three players Bylsma seems reluctant to part with are, in no particular order, Conner, Letestu, and Lovejoy.  And that’s a problem.

Engelland isn’t just a glorified knuckle-dragger.  He plays responsibly in his own end, and he would give the Penguins’ defense an element of toughness it has lacked in the last two games.  Meanwhile, I’m no expert in X’s and O’s, but it’s common knowledge the only power play goal the Penguins have scored in this series came with Tangradi parking his rear end in front of Dwayne Rolosson.  Quite frankly, he’s one of the only Penguins who’s expressed an open willingness to go to the blue paint for offense–something the Lightning do well, and something the Pens haven’t done enough.

It’s a tough decision for Bylsma, who says tonight’s lineup will be a game-time decision.  Hopefully for the Penguins’ sake it’s the right one.  Sometimes, as a coach, you have to swallow your pride in order to get results.  Furthermore, sometimes, as a coach, you have to have faith in your reserves, and have faith that good things can come from unlikely sources.  Could Tangradi possibly do any worse at this point than Conner or Letestu, and could the power play be any worse with his presence?  Could Engelland do any worse than Niskanen or Lovejoy have lately?  Probably not.  Now is not the time to play favorites.  Now is the time for the Pens to play the most ideal cards in their hand.

*A friend of the CBS Radio Pittsburgh family, Dejan Kovacevic of the Post-Gazette, said in his Game 7 preview that Dwayne Rolosson has outperformed Marc-Andre Fleury in this series.  I don’t know if I’d go that far.  The Penguins would not have won Games 1, 3, and 4 if not for the Flower, though as far as Games 2, 5, and 6 are concerned, Dejan’s point is well taken.

In professional sports, typically you are what your record says you are.  Each netminder has won three games, and although Rolosson might be putting up slightly more impressive stats than Fleury, to goaltenders–along with everyone else–the only stat that matters in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is wins.  For better or worse, that’s how goaltenders are ultimately judged.  I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what Tom Barrasso’s all-time GAA and save percentage were in postseason play, because the first thing I remember is the simple fact that he was in the net for back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

If in Game 7 Marc-Andre Fleury plays like a Hart Trophy candidate without the same offensive support Rolosson has received, which Fleury most certainly did for the majority of the regular season and stretch run, no one will be talking about how Dwayne Rolosson got the best of him.  They’ll be talking about how, once again, the unflappable young Francophone who backstopped the Pens to a Cup two years ago won another pivotal game.  Ever since Sid and Geno went down, the Pens have needed Fleury to be their best player night in and night out, and by and large, he has been.  They’ll need him to be that man one more time to advance.

*Yes, it is absolutely true that defense wins championships, but the caveat is, you still have to score.  The bottom line is, the Penguins, with two of the best forwards on Earth on the shelf, simply don’t have the horses to be the same kind of team as the Tampa Bay Lightning, and that couldn’t be much more obvious after having watched Games 5 and 6.  So as Dan Bylsma has rhetorically stated, who’s going to wear the cape?

In 1991 unheralded forward Jiri Hrdina scored twice against the Devils.  In 1995 Norm Maciver scored the game-winner against the Capitals on an early breakaway.  In 2009 Max Talbot launched himself into NHL folklore with two crucial goals at the Joe Louis Arena.  In 2001 Darius Kasparaitis, who would be the first to admit he couldn’t put the puck in the ocean if he fell off a boat, beat one of the greatest goaltenders of his generation, Dominik Hasek, to steal Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in Buffalo.

The point is, it’s way past time for someone in the Penguins’ depleted forward ranks to step up and make a play.  Does Max Talbot have one more big goal in him before free agency?  Can Chris Kunitz redeem himself for his dirty hit on Simon Gagne in Game 3?  Will Tyler Kennedy continue his career year?  Was Game 6 a sign of things come from Jordan Staal and/or Pascal Dupuis?  Was Game 4 a similar omen for James Neal?  And where’s this Kovalev guy I keep hearing about?  He’s on our team, right?

Offensively the Penguins have little room for error, and if their struggles continue in Game 7, Marc-Andre Fleury and his defensemen will have even less.  The Penguins’ offense needs to get pucks deep, move their feet down low, and spell Fleury and the defense by shooting on Dwayne Rolosson early and often, forcing him to steal the game.  The numbers bear out that Tampa Bay is much more likely in a big game to be callous on defense than the Penguins, but that won’t happen unless the Penguins’ forwards pressure the Lightning into making those defensive mistakes.

*We know what a physical roller-coaster ride the Stanley Cup Playoffs are.  But so often we take for granted what an emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride they are as well.

The Penguins simply can’t afford to get caught feeling sorry for themselves.  I may not be inside their heads, but it’s too obvious that this happened in Game 5 when they fell behind in the first period that day.  After skating on even terms with the Lightning through four games, there was little excuse for the Penguins, even in defeat, to let that game spiral out of control the way they did, and the same could be said for last year’s ill-fated Game 7 against Montreal.

To this point, that implosion in Game 5 seems to have turned the tide.  The Penguins can stem that tide by keeping their emotions in check.  This means eliminating careless penalties and not tempting fate with the Lightning’s awesome power play.  This means not coming completely unraveled when one regrettable thing happens.  Playoff hockey is largely about the next play, the next shift, the next goal.  Regardless of what the scoreboard says, the Penguins can’t take their foot of the gas at either end of the ice for the next 60 minutes of hockey…and, Heaven forbid, maybe more.

It’s been a tough season.  It’s been a tough series.  And it’ll be a tough game.  This beard is just starting to itch, but I’m sure I speak for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the rest of their (true) fans when I say that I’m not ready to shave so soon.

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