By losing their last two games, the Penguins positioned themselves to put at risk one of professional sports’ most impressive feats. They will take a 7-0 record in road Game 7s into Madison Square Garden for an opening-round elimination game against the Rangers on Sunday night.
Three of those Game 7 victories have come during the 17-season run with captain Sidney Crosby leading the Penguins. And Crosby generated even more buzz for Sunday night by fully participating in an optional practice Saturday at the Penguins’ suburban Pittsburgh practice facility.
Crosby, Jarry and Rakell are day to day. Boyle being evaluated. No status change for Dumoulin. Per Penguins coach Mike Sullivan
— Rob Rossi (@Real_RobRossi) May 14, 2022
The Athletic assesses what all the injury news means for the Penguins going into Game 7…
We know he could play in Game 7. If he does, where specifically would Crosby most help the Penguins?
Sean Gentille, senior NHL writer: An obvious answer, in my expert opinion, is that he’d help them in the crucial area of “scoring more goals than the other team.” Crosby has nine points in six games, seven at five-on-five alone. That gives the Penguins a layer of fall-back, top-line production to guard against unfortunate occurrences like starting Louis Domingue in five consecutive games.
I’m not going with the most obvious answer, though, because I don’t think a four-point night from Crosby is purely necessary. What the Penguins missed most in Game 6 was the effect he has on the Rangers. With him on the ice at five-on-five, Pittsburgh controlled 77 percent of expected goals. Shot attempts were 112-79. That is, in a word, stupid.
And I get it. This isn’t the right time of year to harp on underlying stats — production is what matters in a short series. But when one line, driven by one person, has the puck enough to cancel out another, the underlyings are important. We can assume that if Crosby plays, points will follow. It’s not a coincidence that Mika Zibanejad doubled his offensive output on the series once Crosby was on the bench.
Rob Rossi, senior Penguins reporter: Neutralizing Zibanejad might be all Crosby would need to do for the Penguins to win at MSG to begin and end this opening-round series. But I’m going with points, because Crosby is the best lead-by-example captain in any sport, and he has a history of returning from injury in truly explosive fashion. He might not score a goal, but I’d feel comfortable, were I a betting man, to put money down on winger Jake Guentzel ending his (coughs) one-game goal drought in the series if Crosby is back as his center.
Same question, only swap out Crosby for Jarry.
RR: A couple of Stanley Cup winning coaches have told me pretty much the same thing about goalies — basically, skaters are better when they believe their goalie will make the routine saves. Go figure, eh?
Dominigue, bless his heart, has been about what anybody would have expected from a fringe NHL goalie thrust into the Stanley Cup spotlight. He has even had some really great, non-foodie moments between the pipes. But the goal he allowed as the winner in a Game 6 loss on Friday night was a must-make stop, and his teammates know Dominigue didn’t make it.
They also know Jarry probably would have made it, and were he between the pipes for Game 6, this whole Game 7 thing wouldn’t be necessary. So, it’s safe to assume Penguins skaters will play better believing their true No. 1 is in the blue paint of the goal crease Sunday night.
And if that playing better extends to their suddenly porous penalty kill, it’s game, set and match (and series) in Pittsburgh’s favor.
SG: I’d say that, if nothing else, they can rely on Jarry to not make any beer league-caliber mistakes, but the Islanders series isn’t far back enough to forget.
Honestly, though — Jarry is an NHL goaltender. High-middle when it comes to starters, let’s say. Domingue isn’t, and he hasn’t resembled it at any point in the series. The Penguins did well to limit the Rangers’ chances — high-danger opportunities in Game 5 were 20-1 (not a typo — but that’s clearly not enough anymore. Even that didn’t carry over, though; I’d be willing to bet that if Evan Rodrigues took five seconds to remember who was in net, he thinks again about roughing Ryan Lindgren in Game 6.
It’s not just the ridiculous goals, either; it’s how Domingue looks even when he’s making saves. No bueno. Credit where it’s due — Domingue kept it together in relief of Jarry, and the “spicy pork” thing was funny for a solid night. Leftovers don’t last much longer than that, though.
How much will the coaching matchup between the Penguins’ Mike Sullivan and Rangers’ Gerard Gallant matter?
SG: If Crosby plays, the single most interesting thing to watch — for me — will be whether Gallant can get the Zibanejad line away from him. Because in Games 1 and 2, even with last change, he either didn’t or couldn’t.
But yeah, I’m taking Sullivan 10 times out of 10 on this, regardless of whether Crosby or Jarry is in the lineup. The Rangers love Gallant — they call him “Ted Lasso,” to his face and everything — but I’d rather have the guy who’s won two Cups and makes in-game adjustments. Crazy, I know.
RR: Be curious (speaking of “Ted Lasso”), just not about this meeting of the minds. A few former NHL coaches have told me in recent days that Sullivan is running a Masters-level class on Gallant. I’d tend to agree, except with a full complement of players — well, by Penguins standards anyway — Sullivan should be able to bump that course up to Doctorate in Hockey.
Every Game 7 has an unexpected hero, or so it seems. Which Penguins player could fill that role?
RR: Goodness gracious, I’m going with Kasperi Kapanen. Gut feeling. Or maybe it was the spicy pork for lunch?
Also, apparently I’m now writing phrases such as “goodness gracious.” What a time to be alive.
SG: Is Jeff Carter too easy? Because he’s having one of the great all-or-nothing series I’ve ever seen so far. The goals are helpful. The rest of it is not.
Yeah, that is too easy. Let’s go with Mark Friedman, then. Maybe he goads a Ranger into a crucial penalty or something. He’s good at that. Really, he’s seemed like a Playoff Memory guy since they picked him up.
(Photo of Sidney Crosby: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)