Entering the Eastern Conference Finals, what was the big buzzword that became associated with the match-up between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins? Speed. Both teams were viewed as fast, skilled groups that were mirror images of each other. This series was supposed to be a track meet, with both the Lightning and Penguins trading scoring chances and flying up and down the ice. So far, only one team has gotten that memo.
Since Tampa Bay gutted out a 3-1 victory in Game 1 after losing starting goalie Ben Bishop just over 12 minutes into the opening period, the Penguins have heavily tilted the ice back in their favor in the last two games. Pittsburgh has outshot the Lightning 89-49 in Games 2 and 3, which included a total of 48 shots for the Pens in Game 3. It was the most shots on goal ever given up by the Bolts in a playoff game that ended in regulation. From the start of Game 2, the Penguins have been faster and more aggressive both with and without the puck. Defensively, they’ve been quicker to harass Lightning puck-carriers, and they’ve held the puck in the Lightning zone for long stretches of time. Not only have the Lightning given up a lot of shots on goal, but the amount of high-quality, Grade-A chances they’ve surrendered to the Penguins is alarming. If not for the Lightning’s backup goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Games 2 and 3 would’ve been much more lopsided.
“The volume of shots we’re giving up and some of the chances we’re giving up are just way too many,” Lightning head coach Jon 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.”
Heading into this series, we all knew this would be Tampa Bay’s toughest test yet. Unlike past seasons, when Pittsburgh had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a group of underachieving wingers, the Penguins now boast a third line that is just as potent as lines featuring Crosby and Malkin. The Bolts have had no answer for the line of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin, who have combined for nine points in the first three games of the series. Their line got the first two goals of Game 3, including the opening goal of the contest with 10 seconds remaining in the second period, taking the wind out of the Lightning’s sails and deflating Amalie Arena.
Tampa Bay is a team that has left its goaltenders out to dry at times this season, whether it be a lack of goal support for Bishop or allowing a ton of chances in front of Vasilevskiy, so what we’re witnessing is something we’ve seen before. But it’s something that’s only happened in two games in the opening two rounds of the playoffs (Game 5 vs. Detroit and Game 3 vs. the New York Islanders). The fact that it’s happened in two consecutive games, albeit against stiffer competition, should be a cause for concern for the Lightning. Tampa Bay didn’t just become a slower team overnight, but they’ve certainly played that way in Games 2 and 3. Watching them in those two games, it’s almost as if the Lightning have become mesmerized by the Penguins’ style of play despite the fact that they have the speed and skill to match up with Pittsburgh. Too often in this series, they’ve looked dazed and confused, even shell-shocked as Pittsburgh has skated circles around them since the start of Game 2. Nothing against players like Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan, or Brian Boyle, but when that line is your best line like they were in Game 3, that’s a problem for the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s two leading scorers in the playoffs, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, registered no points in the first two games of the series and were invisible for the first 40 minutes of Game 3 before Johnson got a goal and Kucherov tallied a pair of assists. Overall, this team has been spectators rather than participants despite the fact that they earned their way into this series despite what some critics called an easy path into the conference finals.
“I’ve said it before: You don’t fluke your way to the Final Four,” Cooper said. “They’ve got a heck of a team over there. They put their skates on one at a time just like we do. We’ve been here before and we’ve been in these situations before. Now, it just puts a little pressure on us to win Game 4.”
The pressure is certainly on for the Tampa Bay Lightning. They might not call this game a must-win, but let’s face the music. If they continue to be spectators in Game 4 and fall behind 3-1 in the series, there’s a strong chance this series doesn’t go past five games.
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