The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins walked into Verizon Center, just four days ago, the stakes were different. They were tiny. They paled in comparison to what the Penguins have let them become.
On Saturday, the Penguins held a 3-1 series lead and the Capitals by the throat. They were 60 minutes from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. Then they were 20 minutes away from it when they carried a 2-1 lead into the third period. Pockets of the Verizon Center crowd booed the Capitals after the second-period horn, and it felt like the Penguins were about to oust the President’s Trophy winners for a second consecutive season.
That was before the Capitals scored eight unanswered goals — three in that third period, five more in a 5-2 Game 6 win — and forced a Game 7 on Wednesday night. Now the Penguins, defending Stanley Cup champions, have a lot to lose in a series that was once so comfortably theirs. The Capitals carry the burden of a tortured playoff history and a shrinking window for superstar forward Alex Ovechkin. The Penguins are just trying not to choke.
“Obviously we have to embrace the moment here,” Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said. “We haven’t placed our best the last two games and we know it. We have to play our best as a team and really enjoy it out there. This is going to be a fun game.”
It’s also a game the Penguins never wanted after missing two opportunities to close out the Capitals.
The Penguins won back-to-back games in Washington to start the series, riding timely offense and the hot play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. They then split the next two games at home, but that offense has since grown lethargic and that goalie has cooled off considerably.
They scored two goals in Game 5 and two goals in Game 6. They have not topped three goals outside of a 6-2 Game 2 win. In Game 6, both came in the final minutes after they were already down 5-0. On the other end of the ice, Fleury has now allowed eight goals in the past four periods. Defenseman Trevor Daley, who missed Game 6 with a lower-body injury and is day-to-day, did not participate in practice on Tuesday or morning skate on Wednesday.
But the Penguins have, to no surprise, maintained a long string of cliches heading into the win-or-go-on-vacation game: It’s just another game. The 3-1 lead they once held doesn’t matter. Just play hockey.
It would be silly to expect them to say much else. And then …
“It’s not like every other game, but you want to try to treat it like that,” said forward Carter Rowney, who could be on the fourth line in place of Tom Kuhnhackl. “You want to go out there and bring as much energy as you can. And you know, it is a Game 7 so if you’re out there playing, it’s do or die. So think your back’s against the wall. It’s a little bit different of a game, but at the same time I think you have to go out there and play your game and play as best you can.”
For the Penguins, that will take a near complete departure from the past two games. In the other locker room, the offense is clicking across three lines, goaltender Braden Holtby is settling into his patented form, and the Verizon Center will be one Capitals’ goal away from combusting once the puck drops. Then you layer on the history between these two teams, the Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby showdown, how last year’s second-round series ended, and on and on.
The mood in the Penguins’ locker room was a bit more measured than it was on the morning of Game 5. There was still smiling, just a bit less of it. There was still laughter, it was just a bit quieter. And there was still a team insisting that it will stay calm and play its game, even if it hopes that that looks a bit different this time around.
“You can write your own legacy here,” said Hornqvist, and then a ringtone started playing in the crowd of reporters around his locker.
“So make sure you have your phones off,” he continued, chuckling and not missing a beat. “And have some fun.”