Last night at PNC Park, with his teammates standing behind him in the middle-infield grass, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby threw out the ceremonial first pitch to his teammate Ron Hainsey. Umpire Jerry Meals got into the act, calling a definitive strike after Crosby’s pitch crossed the plate. After the first pitch, the Pens went up a few levels to and watched the game as a team. In addition to Crosby, Fleury, Murray, Kessel, Kunitz, Hagelin, Cullen and Sheary were all there (just to name a few), and Sid, and the Stanley Cup, even joined fans in right field in the 8th inning. What a night! Exciting for the fans, and the Pirates. Clint Hurdle felt the rush, “Seeing the cup never gets old, it will jazz up the players…I actually had a few players text me toward the end of the game. We had a little running thread going, it was kinda cool. I stayed up, Christian stayed up. I watched the game, Christian hung out and he liked watching the skate-around at the end more.”

 

The best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final is now a best-of-three, or, if you listen to Mike Sullivan, a best-of-one, “our focus is really, quite honestly, on one game. That’s the approach that we have to take. We’ve got to keep our mindset just focused on that short-term approach, just that on-task mindset of just controlling what we can and staying in the moment. That’s where we’re at. That’s all we’ve talked about with our team over the last couple of days, is our focus is just on one game. We’re going to try to put our best game on the ice.”

Mike Sullivan knows he has someone special as his owner. Sullivan had this to say about Mario Lemieux, “he’s at a lot of the games. He comes down, shares his insight. We certainly value what he brings. Obviously he thinks the game on a certain level that most people don’t think the game. We value his input. Mario is great because he does entrust us with making the right decisions. He does empower us to do our jobs, which we’re very appreciative of.”

A big reason the Pens lost Game 4 was the performance of the opposing goalie. Pekka Rinne was on it! The Pens had several chances from point-blank range. Sidney Crosby. Jake Guentzel. Then Chris Kunitz on a breakaway. 24 shots but only one goal. Despite the drought, Mike Sullivan is staying positive, “we’re confident our team will respond the right way, as they always have all season long. I believe we’ve got great leadership in our room. We’ve got good players. They understand the circumstances. We felt as though, with each game we played here, our team game is getting stronger. I thought the game last night, certainly our coaching staff felt as though the game last night, might have been our best overall game in the series to this point.”

Defenseman PK Subban has guaranteed a Predators win in Game 3. On Thursday, Subban said, “there’s no question, we’re going to win the next game, and then we’ll move forward.” Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, meanwhile, are taking it all in stride, “Nobody has really talked about it, to be honest. I think we know that this time of year, there’s no shortage of motivation. I think going into this situation, we expect their best game. We expect a desperate team. It’s not something we’ve discussed. I think at this point you’re motivated enough.”

If you didn’t know what had happened in Game 1, and you saw the postgame interviews, you might have thought the Penguins had lost. But if a team can get a win when not playing its best, perhaps that’s a good sign. The Pens scored five goals, but only had 12 shots. The Predators more than doubled the Pens in shots. Nashville also outhit the Pens, and scored two power play goals. Sidney Crosby and the Pens know they have to get better, but they’re also aware that a win is a win, “we found ways to execute. I don’t know if it was perfect. We got a good bounce there on one of them, made a couple of good plays, I mean, you have to be able to do that sometimes, and we were able to last night (Monday night). That’s not necessarily the way you want to play the game every night.” 

Injured Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is ready for Game 2. Today, Letang spoke for the first time since having surgery in mid-April to repair a herniated disc in his neck, and he’s not backing down from his prediction six weeks ago that the Pens would win back-to-back Cups, “a month-and-a-half ago, I was sitting here and I was really convinced that they’d go all the way and win it again. When you have a leader like Sid. When you have Geno. The core group. They’re just unbelievable players, and they care for each other, so when you have that type of guys on your team, you know you have a chance.”

High stakes. High anxiety. Do or die. Winner goes on. Loser goes golfing. There’s nothing quite like a Game 7. A year ago, almost to the day, the Penguins beat Tampa Bay to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. They’re one win away from the same situation. And although the fans might be on the edge of their seats, the Pens, and head coach Mike Sullivan, are calm in the face of pressure and ready to embrace the challenge, “I think the pyschology of high-stake games definitely has impact on players, and what I love about our team is that we’ve always shown the ability to respond. We’ve had a lot of high stake games over the last couple years in my tenure here, and our players have responded in the right way.”

The Steelers resumed their “Organized Team Activities” on the South Side, and it marked the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who’s back after a year-long suspension under the NFL substance abuse policy, “I mean, I know it’s my last chance. I got the right people around me. I got the people in place for me to help maintain my sobriety, and as long as I pass my tests. That is what I’ve gotta do for my family, and take care of my business, everything will be just fine.” Bryant said he’s undergoing regular testing.

The Penguins have shown all season they can win despite injuries, and no game to this point is more important than tonight’s Game 6, with a chance to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second consecutive season. Sidney Crosby, leading the way with the sentiments of his coaches, “you know we gotta get a win. It’s gonna be a tough one. I think everything else surrounding it is not really our focus, we just have to focus on our game, we play the right way and give ourselves a chance to get one there.”