Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final lived up to its hype.
Bryan Rust scored twice as the Pittsburgh Penguins held on for a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Game 1 of the Final between the Penguins and San Jose Sharks starts Monday night.
Here are three things we learned in the NHL Thursday:
The Stamkos controversy
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was a major talking point heading into Game 7. However, he wasn’t much of a difference-maker (which we maybe shouldn’t have expected) and was rather quiet in his one and only Stanley Cup Playoffs game this season. His placement in the lineup became somewhat of a controversy.
Stamkos was returning to the Tampa Bay lineup for the first time since late March after undergoing surgery to fix a blood clot near his right collarbone. The centre has been on blood-thinning medication, which had prevented him from playing.
Although it appears Stamkos was the one who made the decision to play in Game 7 after being cleared by his doctor, it drew the criticism of many, including Don Cherry.
During the first intermission segment of Coach’s Corner, Cherry said there’s no way Stamkos should be playing.
“This is a superstar, this is the franchise, this is the guy that might not be back there next year,” Cherry said. “Are you asking me should he be playing? I don’t think he should be playing.”
Stamkos finished the game with no points, 11:55 of ice time, two shots on net, two hits and was a minus-one.
Who is Bryan Rust?
The Penguins rookie has come into his own in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs and Thursday night was another example. The 24-year-old scored twice against the Lightning — his fourth and fifth goals of the post-season — which proved to be all the offence Pittsburgh needed.
The Pontiac, Mich., native played four years at the University of Notre Dame before signing with Pittsburgh, which drafted him in the third round (80th overall) in 2010. Last season, Rust scored just once with one assist in 14 games, and this season he scored four goals and seven assists in 41 games for the Penguins.
Rust has played on the right wing with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz during these playoffs and has been a pleasant surprise. On top of his two goals in Game 7, the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder added an insurance marker late in the third period of Game 6 to help Pittsburgh send the series back to Consol Energy Center.
Where do the Lightning go from here?
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, a loss in this year’s Eastern Conference Final is a bit of a step back for Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning have no shortage of question marks entering the summer:
– Will Steven Stamkos stay in Tampa Bay or will he decide to head elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent?
– Does Jonathan Drouin‘s performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs affect Steve Yzerman’s ability or will to trade the 2013 third-overall draft pick?
– If the NHL announces expansion in the coming weeks, what impact does Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s performance have on the Lightning’s goaltending situation for the future? Are they now more likely to keep him over Ben Bishop?
– Nikita Kucherov is due to become a restricted free agent. How does that impact the Lightning’s off-season plans and what kind of terms will Yzerman offer? And then, of course, where does that leave pending UFA Stamkos?