It was only a matter of time before Andrei Vasilevskiy’s back gave out from trying to carry the Tampa Bay Lightning since taking over for an injured Ben Bishop. And if the Lightning don’t regroup soon, they could find their season over in a hurry.
Vasilevskiy made 44 saves on 48 shots, many of the spectacular variety. But in the end, it simply wasn’t enough, as the Lightning got outhustled, outscored, outplayed, and outclassed by the Pittsburgh Penguins throughout Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, dropping a 4-2 decision at Amalie Arena. The Penguins now hold a 2-1 lead in the series. Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said his team simply didn’t manage the puck very well in Game 3, and it cost them.
“We’re feeding their game a lot more than they’re feeding ours. They managed the puck better than us,” said Stralman. “That’s probably the biggest key in this series is to manage the puck well and they did a better job at it than us.”
It was the second consecutive game that the Lightning gave up more than 40 shots on goal, and it was also the most the team has allowed in a playoff game that ended in regulation. Through the first three games of this series, the Lightning have been outshot by an incredible margin of 124-69, including 48-28 in tonight’s game. Matt Murray got the win for Pittsburgh, stopping 26 shots, while Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, and Chris Kunitz scored for the Penguins. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat picked up the goals for the Lightning.
Looking to erase the memory of their bad start from Game 2, the Lightning actually came out with plenty of jump in their step in the opening eight minutes of tonight’s contest. Their speed was evident and their forecheck was aggressive, keeping the Penguins on their heels in that time and outshooting them 7-2 in that time frame. Among their chances was a rebound in-close that Stralman was unable to convert and a Matt Carle shot that was stopped by Murray after an excellent pass from Alex Killorn during a rush into the offensive zone. They looked nothing like the slow, sluggish group that was continually bailed out by Vasilevskiy in Game 2. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they started to fall back into some bad habits as the period went on, committing multiple turnovers in their own zone as well as the neutral zone and stalling their offensive attack before it could get started. Although the period would end with the Bolts holding a 12-10 edge in shots, the Penguins had a lot of time in the Lightning’s zone. Matt Cullen had a couple of solid chances, one on a backhander on a 2-on-1 that missed the net, and another shot attempt that was disrupted by Killorn. Crosby made a beautiful pass between his legs behind the Lightning net to Patric Hornqvist in front, but Vasilevskiy was there to save the day. Vasilevskiy then made back-to-back saves despite traffic in front on Hagelin and Kessel. Tampa Bay was awarded with a late power play on a slashing penalty by Hornqvist, but the Lightning were sloppy with the man-advantage and were unable to get any shots on goal while Hornqvist sat in the box, resulting in the two teams going into the intermission scoreless.
During the second period, you could’ve made the case that the Lightning were on the receiving end of the longest power play in NHL history. Pittsburgh practically lived in Tampa Bay’s zone during the second period, outshooting them 21-6. It might’ve been different had Palat not made an extra pass in the first few minutes of the period. Finding himself on a 2-on-1 rush with Valtteri Filppula, Palat had an open look at Murray and elected to try and slip a pass over to Filppula instead. The puck bounced off the skate of a Penguins defender, and nearly went in, but instead the puck went wide and out of danger. While the Lightning had a couple of other solid looks, including a shot by Brian Boyle that hit the post and a shorthanded odd-man rush by Palat and Filppula that ended up being foiled by Murray and Kris Letang, but other than that, Tampa Bay had no answer for Pittsburgh’s speed or puck possession. Throughout the second period, the Pens were quick to attack Lightning puck carriers when they didn’t have possession, and when they did have control of the puck, they held it in Tampa Bay’s zone for long stretches at a time. Vasilevskiy was forced to make great save after great save, continually standing on his head to keep the game scoreless. A backhand shot by Crosby from the slot following a feed from Evgeni Malkin. A partial breakaway on Kessel following a turnover. A kick save on Chris Kunitz. You name it, Vasilevskiy was there. But the Lightning’s sloppy turnovers in the neutral zone and the defensive zone kept building to a point, and it was only a matter of time before the dam burst. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, it happened with 10 seconds remaining in the second period when a Jonathan Drouin turnover in the Lightning’s zone led to Kessel getting the puck and flying down the right wing. His shot was stopped by Vasilevskiy, but Hagelin was there to pick up the rebound and put it in the back of the net for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead.
In the third period, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper shifted around his lines, including the reunion of the Triplets, in order to provide his team with some kind of a spark. At first, it seemed to work, as Boyle and J.T Brown were stopped on back-to-back shots by Murray. However, with 14:44 remaining in the third, the Penguins would extend their lead, as their line of Kessel, Hagelin, and Nick Bonino would join forces to make it 2-0. After some good forechecking work by Hagelin, he got the puck to Bonino, who wheeled behind the Bolts’ net and centered a pass to Kessel in the left circle, where he buried a one-timer for his seventh goal of the playoffs. When things looked bleak, Johnson gave the Lightning a much-needed shot in the arm, taking a pass from Kucherov in the offensive zone, splitting the defense, and beating Murray with a wrist shot just 14 seconds after Kessel’s goal. Kucherov and Palat got the assists. About halfway through the period, the Lightning bench was up in arms as Crosby appeared to have slew-footed Cedric Paquette, but there was no penalty called. Following a scrum a few minutes later, each team took coincidental roughing minors, which was followed 47 seconds later by an elbowing penalty on the Lightning’s Braydon Coburn. Crosby would make the Lightning pay, rifling a one-timer past Vasilevskiy from the right circle to extend Pittsburgh’s lead to 3-1 with 9:10 remaining. Malkin and Justin Schultz got the assists. Kunitz would tack on the Penguins’ final goal with 6:48 left when he skated in and was robbed by Vasilevskiy, only to see Victor Hedman take possession for the Bolts and fail in the clearing attempt. The puck ended up back on Kunitz’s stick, and he scored to make it 4-1. A late goal by Palat made it 4-2, but by then it was too late. After the game, Cooper lamented the amount of chances the Lightning have given up in the last couple of games of this series.
“The volume of shots we’re giving up and some of the chances we’re giving up are just way too many,” Cooper said. “We’ve gone through multiple playoff games where we don’t give this up in two or three games combined. That’s a ‘five guys on the ice’ issue and we’ve gotta tighten up. Now we’ve played them a couple of times, we’ll make some adjustments and go from there.”
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals is on Friday night at Amalie Arena, with puck drop set for 8 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Phil Kessel – Tallied a goal and an assist, and was everywhere for the Penguins, putting up a game-high eight shots on goal and proving himself extremely difficult to contain.
2nd Star: Carl Hagelin – Opened the scoring with 10 seconds left in the second period and tacked on an assist while tallying six shots on goal. The Lightning had no answer for the line of Kessel, Hagelin, and Nick Bonino.
3rd Star: Sidney Crosby – The Penguins’ captain had six shots on goal and scored a power play goal that turned out to be the game-winner while having multiple good looks at the Lightning net.
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