Before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, there was a lot of chatter that Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos would return to the team’s lineup. The talk turned out to be true, but unfortunately for the Lightning, it wouldn’t be enough to make a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Bryan Rust scored a pair of goals, and the Pittsburgh Penguins completed their rally from a 3-2 series deficit, eliminating the Lightning with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins will host the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night at 8 pm. The Lightning were outshot 39-17, but goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was stellar in making 37 saves, although he’d probably want back the second goal that got through and ended up being the game-winner. Jonathan Drouin tallied the lone goal for the Bolts, while Evgeni Malkin picked up two assists and Matt Murray had 16 saves for the Penguins. It is the first time that Pittsburgh has been to the NHL’s championship series since 2009. Stamkos had two shots on goal, two hits, and finished a minus-1 in only 11:55 of ice time in his only game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He showed no ill effects from having missed almost two months due to the blood clot in his shoulder.
Both teams began the first period playing tight and rather conservative, as there wasn’t much in the way of shots or scoring chances in the first half of the period, as the Lightning squandered a power play chance off a Malkin interference penalty when a Brian Boyle slashing penalty put the teams at 4-on-4. As the period went on, the Lightning were much more aggressive, outhitting Pittsburgh 17-9 and showing no signs of the tentative play from Game 6. Even though the shots on goal were 8-5 in favor of the Penguins, the shot attempts were even at 17 apiece. Vasilevskiy made a save on a shot by Matt Cullen down the left wing after he got by Anton Stralman at the Lightning’s blue line. Sidney Crosby had a backhand shot from Vasilevskiy’s left that was turned aside by the Lightning netminder. Tampa Bay’s two best chances came late in the period when Nikita Kucherov stole the puck from Kris Letang and sent the puck to Ondrej Palat, whose shot was smothered by Murray. With about one minute left, a Victor Hedman slap pass was too hot for Tyler Johnson to handle, going between his legs despite being left alone at Murray’s left. It was a very evenly-matched period with a tremendous back-and-forth pace between the two teams.
The second period would be a completely different story. In fact, it would be a familiar script we’ve seen throughout this series. The Penguins dominated the Lightning in terms of puck possession, shots on goal, and quality scoring chances, as they outshot Tampa Bay 21-5 in the middle period. Just 1:55 in, Rust would pick up the first of his two goals of the night on a play that started off with a bad line change by the Bolts, as defenseman Olli Maatta found Malkin with a stretch pass down the left wing, where he dropped it to Chris Kunitz. Kunitz took a hit from Ryan Callahan to make the pass to Rust, who was wide open in the top of the slot. Rust beat Vasilevskiy high to the glove side to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead. Tampa Bay continued to get hemmed into their own zone, unable to break out of their own zone and unable to get any sustained pressure in the Penguins’ end of the ice. Vasilevskiy had to make back-to-back saves on Phil Kessel and Crosby to keep the game close. Nearly eight-and-a-half minutes into the period, the Lightning only had one shot on goal and one other shot attempt. However, they would get on the board when Jonathan Drouin got the puck in the neutral zone, skated into the Penguins’ zone along the right wing, cut into the middle of the ice, and snapped a wrist shot over Murray’s glove to tie the game 1-1 at the 9:36 mark for his 5th goal of the playoffs. Valtteri Filppula and Hedman got the assists.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, the momentum from that goal wouldn’t last, as Rust would score his second goal of the night just 30 seconds after Drouin’s goal. A shot from Ben Lovejoy went wide and hit the boards behind Vasilevskiy and to his left, but the puck caromed back towards him. Vasilevskiy went to cover the puck as it bounced off the side of the net, but he missed, allowing Rust to take a hack at the puck and squeeze it into the net for the goal. Tampa Bay had another couple of scary moments in the second half of the period, as Hedman was forced to make a save on Conor Sheary in the crease after Vasilevskiy was caught out of position after making a save that led to a rebound. A shot by Patric Hornqvist was deflected away by Vasilevskiy, leaving a rebound to the right side of the net to Kessel. However, the puck was knocked away before the Pens’ winger could knock it home. Pittsburgh held a 29-10 edge in shots on goal at the intermission, and the Lightning were lucky they were only trailing 2-1. Tampa Bay continued to have problems clearing the puck out of their own end, struggling to withstand a furious onslaught from the Penguins.
Tampa Bay had more shot attempts in the first four minutes of the third period than they had in the entire second period, but not before Rust nearly got a hat trick on a breakaway attempt in which he was held without a penalty, leading to a rebound chance for Malkin that went wide. The Lightning would get more extended time in the Pens’ zone, with Drouin creating chances and playing keep-away with the puck. Jason Garrison had a shot that was tipped by Filppula but stopped by Murray during that stretch. A few minutes later, Kucherov got the puck and had a half step on a Pens defender, but decided to pass the puck to Johnson, and the puck ended up behind him. Pittsburgh got an odd-man rush the other way, with Rust nearly getting another goal, but his redirection of a pass was tipped high and over the net. The Lightning had two more really good scoring chances, one of them on a big shot by Anton Stralman from the left circle. The other came on a stretch pass from Palat to Boyle, but Boyle was denied by Murray after cutting to the net. During the final minute of play, with Vasilevskiy pulled, Tampa Bay had three faceoffs in the Pittsburgh zone but lost all three, unable to maintain any pressure in the Penguins’ end of the ice. It looked like the Pens got an empty net goal, but it was disallowed after it was ruled the puck hit the stick of the Penguins’ Ben Lovejoy while he was sitting on the bench. Regardless of that, the Lightning were unable to take advantage of their chances late in the game, and the Penguins came out on top. Despite two straight playoff runs in which they at least made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning are now left to move onto the offseason, where plenty of important decisions will have to be made about this team’s roster going forward.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Bryan Rust – Scored both of Pittsburgh’s goals and nearly had two more on a couple of glorious chances in the third period.
2nd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Made 37 saves, and although he can be blamed for the game-winning goal, his play in this game and throughout the series gave the Lightning a chance to win despite being outplayed.
3rd Star: Evgeni Malkin – Finished with two assists and was a plus-2, as he generated multiple quality scoring chances.
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