2017 Stanley Cup Final: Banged up Pittsburgh Penguins still finding ways to win

By Shelly Anderson, The Sports Xchange  |  May 26, 2017 at 10:50 PM
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PITTSBURGH -- The number that Pittsburgh captain and center Sidney Crosby didn't have off the top of his head is 38.

That's how many players have dressed for at least one game for the club dating back to the start of the regular season.

It's a number necessitated by a string of injuries at all positions, and the string has continued through three rounds of the playoffs even as the Penguins have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, which opens Monday against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena.

"What we've gone through to get to this point, with all the injuries, we found ways all year long," said Crosby, who missed the first six regular-season games and another in the postseason because of concussions. "That's a credit to everyone in this (locker) room. ... If you look at the amount of guys who have played, who are on the roster, over the course of the year, it's a lot of guys. Everyone's a part of that.

"The biggest step is ahead, but to get to this point you need a lot of things to go right, and everyone deserves a lot of credit."

Pittsburgh already knew it would be without top defenseman Kris Letang for the duration of the playoffs after he had disc surgery on his neck. Other defensemen were in and out of the lineup during the first three rounds because of injuries.

The Penguins regrouped. Pairings have been fluid, and the team has spread the responsibility and minutes, with no defenseman averaging as many as 22 minutes a game in the playoffs.

"I think our defense corps is a resilient bunch," coach Mike Sullivan said. "They get knocked down, and they get up, and they get back in the fight. I think that's what I love about them."

It's been the same at forward, where Pittsburgh has juggled lines and lineups.

It has made things all the more difficult, but the Penguins apparently are down to three injured players -- forwards Patric Hornqvist and Tom Kuhnhackl and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. All three -- particularly feisty winger Hornqvist, who will be facing his former team in the Final -- seem close to returning.

"Win four more, and after that we can rest," winger Carl Hagelin said. "We had some injuries throughout the course of the season, so some guys when you're injured you actually get some rest. We're getting more and more guys back, and that's key right now."

Matt Murray recovering

Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray has played in just four games, including three starts, since returning from what was believed to be a groin injury that kept him out nearly a month.

He said he's not only OK, but he's also better than before physically.

"It was definitely a slow process," he said. "It's tough when you're not able to skate and you're not able to spend the days with your teammates when you're hurt. So I definitely just tried to focus on my rehab. I think I came back stronger than before."

His numbers, while a small sampling, bear that out. He is 3-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and one shutout. He stopped 27 of 29 Ottawa shots Thursday in the Penguins' 3-2, double-overtime win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

On April 12, the night of the team's playoff opener against Columbus, Murray consulted briefly with team head trainer Chris Stewart, then limped down the runway toward the locker room about halfway through the pregame warmup.

Former No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in and carried the team partway into the Eastern Conference final before Murray was recovered and Fleury faltered in a game.

Even though Murray helped lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup last year after Fleury got hurt, he found that jumping into the playoffs midstream this spring required a headlong leap.

"That's kind of all I could focus on," Murray said. "I just tried to jump in and not kind of dip your toes in the water because then you're going to get beat. So I just tried to jump in and be confident and just try and play my game."

Penguins racking up viewership numbers

Pittsburgh might still be a Steelers-first city, but the Penguins have made great inroads the past few decades. Winning Stanley Cups will do that -- they are chasing their second in a row, third in nine seasons and fifth overall.

According to NBC Sports Network, which televised Game 7 Thursday, the Pittsburgh market delivered a 29.7 local rating, tops for any Penguins game, including past Cup Finals games.

The share in Pittsburgh was 47.0, which means almost half of the televisions in the market that were on Thursday night were tuned to Game 7.

No Penguins allowed

Another sign of the deep loyalty among Penguins fans is a strong road showing. At times, Pittsburgh contingents in opponent arenas have produced clearly audible chants and cheers for the visiting Penguins -- particularly places within reasonable driving distance from Pittsburgh.

The Predators, apparently well aware of this, are working to try to ensure that Bridgestone Arena does not become home to any sizable Penguins Nation horde.

Ticketmaster, the agent for Finals games in Nashville, posted a notice on its website that buyers for games at Bridgestone Arena will be limited to credit card billing addresses in the Predators' viewing area -- Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. All others who purchase tickets will have their transaction voided.

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