Unsung heroes can alter course of Game 7
From Max Talbot and Darius Kasparaitis to David Volek and Chico Resch, Game 7s in Penguins history have a funny way of manufacturing folk heroes and villains.
One or the other will be born Wednesday night at Mellon Arena when the Penguins host upstart Montreal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The pivotal game in hockey playoff series, especially ones involving the Penguins, often sees unsung heroes steal the show.
"It's a funny thing," former Penguins pest and current ESPN hockey analyst Matthew Barnaby said. "And it's not just Penguins history. In big games and in overtimes of those games, it's never the stars."
Mario Lemieux never scored an overtime playoff goal in his distinguished career. Neither did fellow hockey legends Mark Messier and Gordie Howe.
Kasparaitis, however, scored one of the most famous goals in team history when he beat Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek in overtime of Game 7 to send the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final on May 10, 2001.
"You never know who it's going to be that steals the show," said Tom Fitzgerald, an assistant coach on Dan Bylsma's staff last season and currently GM Ray Shero's assistant.
Once upon a time, Fitzgerald stole the show along with the Penguins' spot in the 1996 Stanley Cup final.
The Florida Panthers were heavy underdogs against the Penguins in the '96 Eastern Conference final but won Game 6 at home in a 4-3 decision — sound familiar• — and then stunned Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the Penguins at Mellon Arena in a 3-1 Game 7 victory. That game was tied, 1-1, in the third period when Fitzgerald's slap shot from beyond the blue line somehow squirted through Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso.
"If I took that shot at Barrasso 100 times," Fitzgerald said, "he probably would have stopped it the other 99 times. But he didn't stop that one. Sometimes crazy things can happen in a Game 7."
Fitzgerald played the game in a similar fashion to another player whose reputation was cemented because of Game 7 heroics. Talbot is a role player on the surface but a big-game staple, with his two goals against Detroit in Game 7 leading the Penguins to their third Stanley Cup.
"His situation was just like mine," Fitzgerald said. "Maybe those shots usually beat (Detroit goalie Chris) Osgood one out of 15 times• But on that night, he did beat Osgood, and that's what matters."
Fitzgerald acknowledges that unsung heroes have a history of shining on the Game 7 stage, but doesn't have an explanation.
Barnaby, however, has made some sense of the oddity.
"It's impossible to totally shut down players like Lemieux and Jagr or Sid (Sidney Crosby) and Geno (Evgeni Malkin) during seven games," Barnaby said. "But sometimes, for just one game, if your entire team is fired up and going out of its way to stop the stars, it can. But sometimes those other guys get ignored, and those other guys can play, too."
Barnaby believes the Penguins will defeat Montreal tonight but isn't convinced it will be Crosby or Malkin — both of whom have only a goal apiece, the identical totals Lemieux and Jagr finished with against Florida — who save the day.
Maybe it will be Talbot, or Tyler Kennedy, or Mike Rupp, or Mark Letestu.
The only guarantee is that the hockey world will be watching.
"It's Game 7," Barnaby said. "You just never know what might happen or who might make it happen."
History with seven
Wednesday night's game against the Montreal Canadiens at Mellon Arena is the 12th Game 7 in Penguins history. The Pens are 7-4 overall, but just 2-4 at home. A breakdown of the 11 previous Game 7's:
JUNE 12, 2009: DRINK IT IN
The Penguins brought the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh by upsetting the favored Red Wings, 2-1, in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena. Max Talbot scored twice and Marc-Andre Fleury made 22 saves, including a diving stop as time expired to preserve the franchise's third Cup title. For the second consecutive year, the Penguins lost the first two games of the Cup Final in Detroit and trailed 3-2 heading into Game 6. This time, they reversed history with a 2-1 victory at Mellon Arena, setting up the winner-takes-all showdown in Detroit. Talbot was the unlikely scoring hero as the Penguins played much of the game without Sidney Crosby, whose left knee was injured in the second period. "It was tough for Sid, obviously, but we were confident," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "It wasn't going to faze us. We weren't going to be denied." Fleury capped a frantic final minute with some sensation saves, none bigger than when he robbed Nicklas Lidstrom's shot before the buzzer sounded. "You've got to make those big ones if you want to be a champion," Fleury said. "That was a big one — the biggest of my life."
MAY 13, 2009: MAD CAP FINISH
The Penguins started the Eastern Conference semifinal against Washington by dropping the first two games at Verizon Center. Ever resilient, the Penguins clawed back with three consecutive wins, two coming in overtime. The Capitals, however, forced Game 7 with a 5-4 overtime victory at Mellon Arena. Capitals star Alex Ovechkin finished with 14 points in the series — one more than Penguins counterpart Sidney Crosby — but he was a non-factor in the decisive game. "Maybe it's 1-A and 1-B, but going into Game 7, (Crosby) is the guy you want on your team," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. Crosby scored two goals in the 6-2 Game 7 victory. He helped the Penguins storm to a 4-0 lead just 2:13 into the second period, sending Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov to the bench. Crosby and journeyman Craig Adams scored eight seconds apart in the first period to send the Penguins on their way to face Carolina in the conference final.
MAY 10, 2001: SABRES SEE A GHOST
In a bizarre Eastern Conference semifinal against the Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins won the first two games at Buffalo, then lost three in a row. They won Game 6 in overtime after Mario Lemieux's miraculous tying goal late in regulation. Game 7 at HSBC Arena was looking like a lost cause until Robert Lang tied it midway through the third period. The unlikeliest of heroes — defenseman Darius Kasparaitis — won it, 3-2, when he beat legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek in overtime with a wrist shot from the edge of the left circle. No one who watched will soon forget "Kaspar" racing to center ice, diving on his stomach and kicking his legs in the air to celebrate; he'd scored one goal in his previous 56 playoff games. As Kasparaitis so aptly put it, "I can't believe I did that." Neither could his teammates. "I haven't seen him score a goal in practice since I've been here," said veteran winger Kevin Stevens. "He's got the worst wrist shot in hockey."
MAY 4, 1999: DEVIL OF AN UPSET
The eighth-seeded Pens, under coach Kevin Constantine, fell behind top-seeded New Jersey, 3-2, in the first round but beat the Devils in Game 6 thanks to a heroic performance from injured captain Jaromir Jagr. The Penguins then went into New Jersey and shocked the Devils, 4-2, to complete perhaps the biggest upset in franchise history. Nobody slid on their stomachs, but Martin Straka did a celebratory slide on his back by the benches after he scored the Penguins' fourth goal. Each member of the second line — Straka, Alexei Kovalev and German Titov — scored to support the goaltending of Tom Barrasso. A still-injured Jagr, battling a bad groin, assisted on two goals. "I could not watch," Jagr said. "I had to play."
JUNE 1, 1996: OH, RATS!
This is the closest Mario Lemieux came to reaching a third Stanley Cup final. The upstart Florida Panthers — whose fans threw plastic rats onto the ice — won Game 6 of this Eastern Conference final, 4-3, then stunned the favored Penguins with a 3-1 victory at Civic Arena in Game 7. Current Penguins assistant Tom Fitzgerald delivered the dagger, a 55-foot slapshot 6:18 into the third period that eluded Tom Barrasso and broke a 1-1 tie. It changed direction after deflecting off the stick of Penguins defenseman Neil Wilkinson. "It was near the end of a shift, and I just wanted to get a shot on net," Fitzgerald said afterward. "I didn't even see it go in." John Vanbiesbrouck made 39 saves for the Panthers, and the Penguins played without injured star Ron Francis.
MAY 18, 1995: WREGGET UNBEATABLE
In a near-repeat of their 1992 series, the Penguins fell behind the star-crossed Caps, 3-1, in the first round, then lit up rookie goaltender Jim Carey to force Game 7 at Civic Arena. Norm Maciver's breakaway goal 1:37 into the game — two Capitals' defensemen collided — would prove to be all the scoring the Penguins would need in a 3-0 win. Ken Wregget stopped 31 shots for the shutout. Afterward, Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld said, "We have to give a lot of credit to Ken Wregget. I thought he had himself a whale of a game."
MAY 14, 1993: DAVID WHO?
The Penguins finished the regular season with a NHL-record 17-game winning streak, then crushed New Jersey in first round and were expected to destroy the Islanders on their way to a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Many players from that club still believe it was the greatest team in Penguins history. But it couldn't finish off the Islanders, who won Game 6, 7-5, in Long Island, then stunned the Penguins, 4-3, in Game 7 at Civic Arena when obscure forward David Volek beat Tom Barrasso at 5:16 of overtime (Tom Fitzgerald also was on this Islanders team). The game got off to a horrific start when Penguins winger Kevin Stevens collided in mid-air with Islanders defenseman Rich Pilon. Stevens sustained massive facial injuries. It marked the third time the Islanders eliminated the Penguins in the deciding game of a playoff series. The Islanders played the series without their best player, Pierre Turgeon. "Without a doubt, we should have won it," Penguins defenseman Larry Murphy later said. "It just goes to show: The best team doesn't always win the Stanley Cup."
MAY 1, 1992: CAPITAL MELTDOWN
On the way to defending their first Stanley Cup, the Penguins ran into a road block in the first round. They trailed the Capitals, 2-0 and 3-1 in the series. Finally, the Pens pulled back, switched to a passive trap and befuddled the Capitals in winning three in a row. In Game 7 at the Capital Centre, Mario Lemieux scored a short-handed goal on Don Beaupre and set up Jaromir Jagr with the eventual winner, a power-play goal at 9:40 of the second period. Ron Francis scored an empty-netter to account for the 3-1 final. The New York Times described the ending of the series this way: "The closing scene at the Capital Centre was a strange one, with thousands of visiting Pittsburgh fans chanting and cheering and howling long after the final buzzer and the traditional exchange of handshakes at center ice."
APRIL 15, 1991: BIG-TIME BLOWOUT
After stealing Game 6 of a first-round series in New Jersey — the game in which Pens goaltender Frank Pietrangelo made "The Save" — the Penguins returned to Civic Arena and destroyed the Devils, 4-0, in Game 7, despite losing Mario Lemieux to back spasms after the first period. The Penguins would go on to win the Stanley Cup under coach "Badger" Bob Johnson. Defenseman Paul Coffey gave the Penguins a boost by returning to the lineup after missing two games with a scratched cornea. Lemieux scored before departing, Coffey scored on a Pietrangelo assist, and veteran Czech winger Jiri Hrdina added two goals. "It should have been finished (in Game 6)," Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said afterward. "Instead of killing them when they were down, we gave them a chance to come into it."
APRIL 29, 1989: WREGGET RUINS A DREAM
The Penguins hammered the Flyers, 10-7, in Game 5 of this Patrick Division final but lost Game 6, 6-2, then dropped Game 7 on home ice, 4-1, as Flyers backup goalie Ken Wregget — the future Penguins netminder — stoned the Pens with 39 saves. Wregget learned the morning of the game that he would play in place of injured starter Ron Hextall. "The nerves were phenomenal," he said later. "I remember the hotel room, trying to sleep, seeing the big silver dome (of Civic Arena) outside of my window. It was kind of ominous." Brian Propp, Dave Poulin, Mike Bullard and Scott Mellanby scored for the Flyers.
APRIL 26, 1975: UTTER DESPAIR
Ed Westfall scored the only goal — a backhander that beat goaltender Gary Inness — with 5:18 left in regulation to complete the visiting New York Islanders' comeback from a 3-0 deficit, a hole no other NHL team has escaped from since. Only one team, the 1942 Maple Leafs, against Detroit in the Stanley Cup final, had done it previously. The Penguins had their chances; Pierre Larouche hit the post twice. Westfall was late leaving the dressing room after the game and ran into Penguins center Syl Apps, who wondered why Westfall was all by himself. "I told him, 'Everybody left. Where are you guys going?' " Westfall later recalled. "He said, 'The Pleasure Bar.' So I went with the Penguins players and their wives to the Pleasure Bar and sat there drinking until sunrise."