PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins kept getting by even as their star players kept skating off the ice in pain. Even as the targets on their back as Stanley Cup champions kept getting bigger. Even as Columbus and Washington and Ottawa kept pushing and prodding, poking and pinching.
“Just play,” coach Mike Sullivan kept telling his players. Over and over and over again.
So the Penguins did. And the team that found itself uncharacteristically on its heels for long stretches as it fended off the Blue Jackets in the first round, shut down the Capitals in the second and outlasted blue-collar Senators in the third is back where it was a year ago: heading to the Stanley Cup Final with confidence, momentum and more than a little bit of swagger.
Next up: “Smashville.”
Pittsburgh earned a return trip to the Cup with a thrilling 3-2 double-overtime victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday. Chris Kunitz provided the winner, a knuckler from just outside the circle that made its way past Craig Anderson 5:09 into the second extra period and moved the Penguins a step closer to becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat.
And here’s the scary part: after a season pock-marked by the loss of do-everything defenseman Kris Letang and significant absences by Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kunitz, goaltender Matt Murray and a host of others, the Penguins are starting to look like the team that picked apart San Jose last June to capture the franchise’s fourth title.
“Our last four games in this series for me, we really found our game,” Sullivan…