Penguins defeat Lightning, 5-2, to force Game 7

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) and left wing Chris Kunitz (14) celebrate Bryan Rust's (17) goal during the third period of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. The Penguins defeated the Lightning 5-2. (AP)

TAMPA, Fla. — The Penguins talked an awfully good game in the day or so leading up to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final.

Then, they went out and played an even better one.

They defeated Tampa Bay, 5-2, at Amalie Arena Tuesday night — surviving a third-period surge by the Lightning in the process — to force the series to Game 7 at 8:10 p.m. Thursday at Consol Energy Center.

Home ice hasn’t been much of an advantage for the Penguins in Games 7 — they are 2-7 in them, including losses in each of the past five — but if they produce the same kind of all-around effort they did in Game 6, they should have a reasonable chance to reach the Stanley Cup final for the fifth time in franchise history.

“You go through different experiences, and realize how hard it is to get these kinds of opportunities,”Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. “As a group, we’ve been through a lot, and want to make the most of it.”

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan started rookie goalie Matt Murray, who responded by stopping 28 of 30 shots.

That included 17 saves in the third period, much of which played out in the Penguins’ end.

Murray looked a bit out of sorts early — perhaps because he faced just four shots during the first 20 minutes — but settled in as the game went along, and was his usual unflappable self when the Lightning staged a spirited late-game comeback.

“It’s pretty impressive, his demeanor,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said.

The Penguins dominated the first two periods, getting unanswered goals from Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby, but were forced to fend off that furious Lightning rally in the third.

“They made a push,” Kessel said.

“We bent, but we didn’t break.”

They came pretty close, though.

“Maybe we didn’t respond as well as we should have,” winger Bryan Rust said. “But we held on.”

Brian Boyle scored twice for the Lightning — the first was inadvertently deflected past Murray by Kessel — and there was genuine suspense about the outcome until Rust pulled in a lead pass from Chris Kunitz and beat Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on a breakaway at 17:52 to make it 4-2.

“That was a huge goal,” said Crosby, who has scored the winner in each of the Penguins’ three victories in this series.

Nick Bonino put an exclamation point on the victory by scoring into an empty net with 53.1 seconds left.

Game 6 provided something of a template for success in Game 7 as the Penguins started well, got production from their core players and received timely saves from Murray.

“We have to play a good two-way game, play the right way,” Kessel said. “And hopefully, the results follow.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Lightning will play along again, the way it did for the first two periods Tuesday.

“We can’t spot a team like this a three-goal lead,” coach Jon Cooper said.

The Penguins were more defiant than deflated after a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 5, and that attitude served them well when they were playing to keep their season alive Tuesday.

“Give Pittsburgh a ton of credit for how they played and how they handled things,” Cooper said.

“They volleyed the ball into our court, and now it’s our turn to smash it back.”

The Penguins are aware this victory only extended their season, and that a loss in Game 7 would undo whatever they accomplished in Game 6.

“We only won one game here,” right winger Patric Hornqvist said.

“We’re not done yet. And it’s going to be an even harder one [Thursday].”