Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with teammates Evgeni Malkin #71 and Sidney Crosby #87 after scoring a goal against Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators during the third period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 21, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
OTTAWA—Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, a handful of Pittsburgh Penguins were playing soccer: Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby. The game was keep the ball in the air, and if it hit the ground on your watch, you’re out. Crosby and Malkin, in particular, loved the game. Malkin would interrupt the more friendly parabolas with sharpish headers, directed at specific teammates, and laugh and laugh. Crosby would dig out the ball, determined. It kept coming down to the two of them; Crosby won the last game before the actual game.
The Penguins and the Ottawa Senators will play Game 7 on Thursday night. In four of the six games in this series, the Penguins have been held to a total of four goals, all scored by their best three players, and Ottawa won three of those; in two games, the Penguins have scored a total of 10 goals, and won them both. Ottawa survived a Game 6 because their goaltender was the best player in the game. Hockey.
And now it’s Game 7, and the main dynamic of the series is clear: Pittsburgh can explode; Ottawa tries to avoid that, any way it can. As Ottawa’s Clarke MacArthur puts it, “We want to bore them out of the building.”
But Crosby and Malkin — and Phil Kessel, riding along — are two of the defining players of this era, even if Malkin is so often overshadowed, especially in Canada. The list of active players who have averaged at least a point per game in the playoffs in at least 20 games: Crosby (1.11), Malkin, (1.08), and Mike Cammalleri, who had 32 very productive playoff games between 2008 and 2011. There are six active players who have produced at least a point per game in the regular season: Crosby is No. 1 at 1.31 per game, Malkin is No. 2 at 1.18. (The other four: Connor McDavid, 1.17, Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin, 1.12, and Patrick Kane, 1.02.)
These are the guys you want to have, and if you don’t, these are the guys you want to stop. And now, Ottawa’s task is to hold them under wraps one more time, and the task of Crosby and Malkin is to break through. When the Penguins were down 2-1 in this series and had three goals in three games, I asked Malkin: With the top-heavy nature of this team, do you and Sid feel extra pressure?
“I think me and Sid, we always feel pressure, like every game,” Malkin said. “I mean, it doesn’t matter, you play against Ottawa or Washington . . . we like that, like it’s our life, our hockey life. We come to the rink. We work every practice to score and to help the team to win . . . We need to play better, like don’t listen to noise, don’t listen to like everything, like forget everything and play how we can, like we have good group, good leadership, and just show our game.”
Their hockey life: that’s a good way to put it. One of hockey’s central challenges is that you can play a great game, dominate, and the puck can simply refuse to go in. The puck can hit the goaltender, a defender, a teammate, a stick, a post. Malkin scored a goal in Game 6 that was as close to a one-man show as it gets. He was angry at himself for not doing more.
Dominance is hard. In six career Game 7s, Crosby has two goals and two assists; Malkin has six assists, no goals. It’s a small sample size, and Game 7s tend to be low-scoring affairs anyway. Of course, Crosby’s two biggest games ever, the two Olympic finals, he scored the overtime game-winner in one, and the second goal in the other. And as Olympic coach Mike Babcock said in Sochi, “Everyone evaluates Sid on scoring and I evaluate Sid on winning.”
“(Crosby) in particular has played in arguably the most high-stakes environments in all different venues — whether it be the NHL, the Olympics, the World Cup,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has such a wealth of experience to draw on, and I think he’s a fierce competitor.”
“They’re so competitive,” said Penguins winger Carter Rowney. “You see them practise, they’ll be staying out last, working on stuff. They’re both eager to win, and you can see how competitive they are, you can see it in their play. I think that’s something they take pride in, and I think it’s something that’s contagious — it’s cool how much those guys want to win, and in practice they’re still willing to get better. I think that’s pretty cool. They’re two of the best in the game, and they’re still out there working.”
They can work all they like, but it guarantees nothing. The Senators can absolutely win this game, and this series. As Clarke MacArthur put it, “I remember coming home after we lost 7-0. I was driving back talking to Dion (Phaneuf), and he was like, ‘We’re going to get this series.’ And I was thinking the same thing . . . I know when we play our game, and if we’re on, we can beat any team in the league.”
The odds are that better players — even ones facing the constant assaults that Crosby in particular endured in Game 5 — will produce. But Ottawa may hold them down one more time, too. Game 7. Hockey. Drop the puck, and see where it goes.