Tampa Bay Sports Day

NHL: Lightning’s Quest for Cup Ends, 2-1

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins will play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at Consol Energy Center on Thursday.

The Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks begins here on Monday.

In a Game 7 full of big-name players, including Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos in his return to action, Penguins rookie forward Bryan Rust scored twice and rookie goalie Matt Murray made 16 saves.

“The big dream is still yet to be achieved,” Rust said. “I credit my linemates for elevating their game and helping me elevate mine. It just happens that I was the one who put the pucks in the net.”

Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s leading goal-scorer during the regular season, played for the first time since March 31 after having surgery for a blood clot. He played 11:55 over 20 shifts, 5:26 of that in the third period.

Stamkos had a chance to tie the game 2-2 late in the second period, but Murray got just enough of his snap shot to steer it wide of the left post with 3:49 remaining.

“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos said. “It just went through him and out the other side. It was close, but we didn’t generate enough offensively in order to win a game.”

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Pittsburgh was aware Stamkos would present a challenge.

“He’s a world-class player, and they’re adding him to their team,” Crosby said. “You look how dangerous he is, and for even missing the amount of time he did, he looked pretty good out there. …

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen — I think we just tried to worry about us — but it’s hard not to know if he’s out there and be aware of that.”

Crosby scored the game-winning goal in Game 2, 3 and 6. In the seven years between Stanley Cup Final appearances, Crosby said he never doubted Pittsburgh would make it back.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “Having gone through a couple of those early on, 20 and 21 years old, playing in the Finals, I think you have more of an appreciation for it now. Just love the opportunity to be able to get back.”

The Penguins had last won a Game 7 in the 2009 Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Pittsburgh had lost three consecutive Game 7s since.

Rust, in his first Game 7, gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 1:55 into the second period. Evgeni Malkin received a stretch pass from defenseman Olli Maatta before leaving the puck near the blue line for Chris Kunitz, who passed to Rust coming into the zone between the faceoff circles. Rust sent a snap shot over goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove for his fourth goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After going 11 games without a goal since scoring twice against the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round, Rust has scored three goals in his past two games.

Jonathan Drouin tied the game 1-1 with his fourth goal of the series 9:36 into the second period, but Rust scored 30 seconds later.

A slap shot from defenseman Ben Lovejoy bounced off the end boards and to the right of the net, where Vasilevskiy attempted to freeze it with his glove. The puck came free and Rust poked it between Vasilevskiy and the right post to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead.

Rust’s five playoff goals are the most by a Penguins rookie since Jan Hrdina scored four in 1999.

The Penguins held a 29-10 shots advantage through two periods, and finished 39-17.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper credited Pittsburgh but said Tampa Bay, who lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks last season, could have been more aggressive.

“We got caught. When we were in those situations, we probably should have shot and we passed,” Cooper said. “We got caught in between on a lot of occasions. They play [defense] well. They block a lot of shots. That was evident this whole series. The amount of shot blocks was just incredible.”

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, who took over Dec. 12 after Mike Johnston was fired, regularly stressed a team concept and said he felt that was evident Thursday. He said Game 7 might have been the “most complete 60-minute effort” Pittsburgh has had.

“I think we have evolved into a team in the true sense of the word,” Sullivan said, “and I think tonight, that was on display. … We wanted to play in their face and in the gaps tight … I think we took the speed away that makes Tampa Bay so dangerous.

“I know there’s a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself.”