It might seem a bit hyperbolic to suggest that for a team that is trailing by two games in the Eastern Conference finals, but this is as big as it gets. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to suggest this is as big a game as the Penguins franchise has faced since Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals in Detroit.
Answer the bell after being outscored 9-1 at home in the first two games, including a 6-1 shellacking in Game 2, and this series takes on a different tenor. In short, win and there will be life.
Lose and it’s all but over and the questions about dramatic changes within the organization will begin in earnest.
It’s hard to imagine a game for which there has been this much anticipation this spring, and that takes into account dramatic Game 7s between Boston and Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, and San Jose and Los Angeles. That’s because of the manner in which the Bruins have manhandled the Penguins juxtaposed against the star quality and attendant expectations that surround the Pittsburgh franchise heading into this postseason and specifically this series.
This game will be a litmus test for the Penguins’ character, pure and simple.
“You don’t plan on being in this situation, but you definitely see what you’re made of in these type of scenarios, these type of situations,” said Crosby, the Penguins’ captain who is coming off two subpar games.
“We’ve proven all year long when we’ve had adversity and we’ve responded the right way, so I think we believe and trust that tonight will be the same and we’ll find a way to make sure we’re back on track here,” he added.
Bylsma agreed that Game 3 will speak volumes about what this team is about.
"We haven't really been happy with the way we've played and know we've gotten off our game and deviated from it,” he said. "We know the situation we're in exactly too. We're down 0-2, and we're challenged with going on the road to Boston for two. We're going to find out exactly an awful lot about our mindset, our team coming out here tonight in this game."
At the heart of the matter is the fact that this team was built for these moments.
Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang all were part of the Penguins’ dramatic run to the Cup in 2009, a run that included comeback wins in seven-game series against Washington and Detroit.
In short, a team that was built for the long haul now has to play like it.
“The playoffs, that’s what it’s all about, I think," said Dupuis. "Every single game, when you’re back's to the wall a little bit when you’re down 2-0 in the series, you need to react, you need to bring your A-game. Pretty confident we will tonight."
Although it’s possible there will be other lineup changes -- Bylsma promised that the team would have a different look in Game 3 in terms of lineup and line combinations -- the biggest decision heading into Game 3 is returning Vokoun to the starting role.
Vokoun has started every game since the fifth game of the first round but was pulled in the first period of Game 3 after allowing three goals on 12 shots. Marc-Andre Fleury came on but did not look sharp. While there was much speculation about which way Bylsma would go with his goaltending in an effort to avoid going down 3-0 in the series, he decided on the calmness of the veteran Vokoun.
“Looking for a solid game from our goaltender,” Bylsma said. "We've gotten that from Tomas in virtually every game he's played, a real solid performance, and he's done that for us, and that's what we need tonight. We don't need perfection. We're looking for a solid game in between the pipes and from our goaltender to allow our team to win the hockey game."
It’s the kind of decision that looms large for all concerned. Not only in the short term for Vokoun and the Penguins and their ability to turn this into a series but also over the long term as the lack of confidence in Fleury suggests that, if we haven’t seen the last of him in a Penguins jersey, the clock is definitely ticking toward the end of his run in Pittsburgh.
“It would be really tough for Marc, coming in after such a long time, so obviously coach's decision," Vokoun said Wednesday morning. "Just trying to repay their confidence, have a good game, help the team win."
“It's pressure no matter what. I don't feel any added pressure, honestly. It's an important game, but so is every game in the series,” he added.
As for the ability to put away the previous game’s disappointment, Vokoun said experience has taught him to forget the past, whether it’s been good or bad.
“Over the years, you have to do it many time, so that helps, definitely. It's part of what we do as goalies,” he said. "You can't dwell on what happened last game. You just move on. It wouldn't matter if I got a shutout last game. It wouldn't make it any easier tonight."