MOON, Pa. – We’ve come a long way from Joe Namath’s Super Bowl guarantee.
The premise has been stretched and overused and occasionally forced whenever a big game arrived over the ensuing four-plus decades.
But there was something genuine about Evgeni Malkin’s words here in Moon. It was impossible not to take him at face value when he promised that his line would produce a goal in a must-win Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Beyond that, he vowed that this Eastern Conference final would return to Consol Energy Center for a winner-take-all Game 7.
“I believe in my team, I believe in myself,” Malkin said Monday. “We’re coming back to Pittsburgh for sure.”
The statement was made in a giant airport hangar as his teammates filed onto their charter flight to Tampa. He wasn’t asked for a prediction or goaded into saying too much.
This was merely a reflection of what the star centre believed ahead of Tuesday’s game at Amalie Arena – the biggest this Penguins core has faced in seven years.
It might not quite be on the level of Mark Messier’s legendary guarantee with the 1994 New York Rangers, but it was delivered under the exact same circumstances – trailing 3-2 in the conference final and facing a road game to save the season.
“I think it’s a very huge game for our leadership,” said Malkin, one of Pittsburgh’s alternate captains. “Yeah, it’s a tough situation, but if we see history, you know, it’s 3-2, it’s not over for sure. …
“It’s not easy, but it’s just one game.”
Out of the ashes of Sunday’s disappointing 4-3 overtime loss on home ice – one where Pittsburgh squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2 to the Lightning – a feeling of defiance seemed to grow.
The Penguins have been the NHL’s best team since the Christmas break. They’ve outshot Tampa in all five games of this series and by a total of 68 shots overall. There’s reason to believe that Malkin’s guarantee is more than just an empty bluster.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “It all depends on how you look at it.”
The margin for error between these teams has been even narrower than originally imagined. They are both fast and skilled and producing goals. Tampa is currently ahead 15-14 on aggregate.
That makes Sullivan’s goaltending decision for Game 6 of particular interest, especially since the best performer at the position so far in this series has been Andrey Vasilevskiy – the 21-year-old Lightning backup who came on for injured Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop in the opener.
Sullivan replaced rookie Matt Murray with Marc-Andre Fleury on Sunday, and it didn’t produce the desired result. That was Fleury’s first start in more than seven weeks and the Penguins coach mentioned the layoff as a factor in the four goals he gave up on 25 shots.
“I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” said Sullivan. “He might have got away from it a little bit as the game went on. And to Marc’s defence, it’s a tough situation when you haven’t played in a long time and you get thrown into a high stakes environment like that.”
They’ll only grow now.
It is under these conditions where the Penguins will rely on their core players to deliver the goods. Sidney Crosby has scored two game-winners in this series, but was held off the scoresheet entirely in the last two games. Defenceman Kris Letang is being asked to shoulder an incredibly difficult load by playing huge minutes, but was on the ice for all four Tampa goals in Game 5.
And Malkin has scored just once in the last 10 games.
Each of them have produced more shots on net than any Tampa player during this Eastern Conference final and can tilt the odds with a big goal on Tuesday. After all, it was the Lightning’s top healthy offensive weapons – Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson – that sparked their Game 5 comeback.
“We believe in ourselves and we know we have the players in the dressing room to do it,” said veteran Penguins winger Eric Fehr. “We just have to go out and play. If there’s one thing we’ve learned against Tampa Bay, it’s you can’t take a second or a minute off against these guys. They’re really quick-strike, they’ve capitalized like a lot of teams haven’t in the past.
“If we can just stay focused for a full 60 minutes, I like our chances.”
Malkin will be under more of a microscope than usual after his strong words at the suburban Pittsburgh airport.
The Russian centre is often a reluctant interview, but he’s known to be honest on the occasions he does speak. Back in October, he called out teammates and coaches following a loss at New Jersey. Now he’s calling for a victory.
“What’s he supposed to say in that situation?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters in Tampa. “’We’re done. We’re just going down there as a formality?’ Of course they’re going to say they’re going to win, and they should. They’re a good team – a good, confident group – but we feel the same way.
“But look: You’ve got to win four, and we’re a little closer to four than they are.”
Malkin noted that Pittsburgh trailed the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in the 2009 Stanley Cup final before rallying to win it. This is the best chance they’ve had since then to win another championship.
“It’s a tough game,” said Malkin. “Tampa’s a good team – it’s a very good team – but if we play right all 60 minutes, we win.”
He didn’t leave much wiggle room in those comments. Whether we remember them or not will depend on what happens next.