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Kunitz double-OT goal sends Pens back to Stanley Cup Final

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Chris Kunitz scored in double-overtime, his second goal of the game, lifted the Penguins over the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

Nobody cares where you came from; they only want to know where you’re going next.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s right back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Surviving a game that had a coin-flip feel, the Penguins struck gold with 14:51 left in double overtime, when Sidney Crosby carried the puck from behind the net, then pushed a pass to an angled Chris Kunitz who then slapped a one-timer that whistled past Craig Anderson, punching the back of the net and giving the Penguins a 3-2 win over Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

“I was just trying to get in the soft spot.  The puck fluttered off my stick.  I don't know if it touched (Jean-Gabriel Pageau) or just kept going right by,” Kunitz said of his game-winner. 

Kunitz joins Darius Kasparaitis as the only players in franchise history to score an overtime goal in Game 7. 

“Looked like there was a good screen on the goalie, looked like he fell down,” the veteran continued. “Just found its way into the net.  Sometimes you get lucky when you put one in the net.”

Kunitz also became just the seventh player in NHL history to score an overtime goal in Game 7 of a series to send his team to a Stanley Cup Final.

Pittsburgh will now face Nashville in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, which will mark their second straight trip to the championship round series.

The Penguins are now 3-1 in Game 7’s since 2014, knocking out a Senators’ team that has played in eight postseason overtime games this season, winning six.

“It’s awesome,” said a jubilated Conor Sheary, who finished the night with an assist.  “You get a little nervous when it is Game 7, and then to go into overtime it kind of doubles that.  I think we stuck to our game plan for most of the game.  The guys were excited to play and we got the result we wanted.”

Sheary’s assist came on the opening goal of the game Thursday night, when a perfectly executed give-and-go ended with a Kunitz finish at the 9:55 mark of the second period.  Kunitz’s two goals marked his first of the postseason.

"Those two goals won't go unnoticed," said Crosby, who finished with the assist, and skated 15:46 with Kunitz, after the veteran left-winger shifted from the fourth to the first line shortly after the opening goal. 

Ottawa answered the first Kunitz goal 20 seconds  later off a Mark Stone (5) finish over Matt Murray that tied the game, taking the air out of a PPG Paints Arena venue that was seconds removed from a 107-decibel reading.

“We knew we were getting our chances and we just had to stay with it,” said Justin Schultz, who made his return to the lineup Thursday.  “We just said ‘keep playing the same way here.  We’re going to get it.’  We ended up getting it.”

Schultz put a jolt of electricity back into the hearts of the home crowd, when at the 11:44 mark of the third period, and just seconds into the Pens’ lone power play, the defenseman smacked a one-timer from the Stanley Cup Playoff logo that beat Anderson, giving his team a 2-1 lead.

“I think Justin is an important part of our blue line. He makes a great play in the power play. It's a difference in the game,” said Mike Sullivan.  “I think that play, in and of itself, is an indication of the impact he has on our team and our ability to win games. But it doesn't just stop there on the power play.”

The Pens, who ripped 42 shots on Ottawa’s netminder, had a bevy of scoring chances fall south, including a redirect shot from Phil Kessel that sailed past Anderson but just above the crossbar, dancing just along the red pipe and back to the ice midway through the first overtime.  That play followed a semi-breakaway snapshot from the wing that sailed just wide of the net.

With just over four minutes left in regulation, Kessel had his best chance of all, this one with the puck slipping past the sliding stick of Anderson, but clipping the right pipe, missing the back of the net by inches.

“It’s tough.  It happened all series,” said Sheary of the missed opportunities.  “We’ve done a good job, for the most part, not getting frustrated on the bench and kind of sticking with it and doing what we do best.  Tonight, was evidence of that, and I think we played a complete game tonight.”

While Pittsburgh didn’t harness all of their opportunities on the offensive end, the blue line and Murray served as a consistent, rock-solid cornerstone in collecting the victory after Ryan Dzingel tied things up with just over five minutes left in the game, sending the game to bonus hockey.

Murray stopped 27 shots (four shots in both overtime periods), while the defensive unit in front of him kept the Senators in check on 35 game scoring chances, including seven in the overtime periods.  

“I've said on a number of occasions that this group of defensemen are the unsung heroes of this team, and that's what I mean when I say that,” said Sullivan.  “They don't get a lot of accolades. They don't show up on ESPN highlight reels, but they just quietly do a decent job back there as far as helping us get out of our end zone, managing the puck the right way, and defending hard when we need them to defend.”

“This group of defensemen is vitally important to the success that this team is able to enjoy to this point, and they're going to have to continue to play that way for us to continue to have success,” the coach continued.

The penalty kill, as they have all season long, also held the Senators up Thursday night, fighting off both chances.  Ottawa's power play went a dismal 1 of 33 in the series.

"We did a good job of holding them down when it counted the most," said Olli Maatta, who finished with a team-high 31:57 of ice-time.  

"It's been a long season and this is where we wanted to be at the beginning," continued the defenseman.  "It feels like everybody is just really excited to get it started.  Now we are where we want to be, but, again, it is not done yet.  We need those four wins."

The first step in keeping Lord Stanley in the steel city begins Memorial Day Monday, when Pittsburgh will host Nashville in Game 1.  Puck will drop at 8 PM.

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