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Playoff Hopeful Penguins Hang on to Top Playoff Bound Bolts

The Tampa Bay Lightning are playoff bound! It’s hard to believe that just one month ago, they were in a tight battle for the second wildcard position in the Eastern conference. Fans wondered whether the boys in blue would make the playoffs. Since then, they have a sparkling record of 10-1-1 and have soared ahead of their competition. Last night, their efforts were rewarded as they clinched their seventh consecutive playoff berth. Their ticket is punched, and the pressure is basically off for them. Conversely, their opponent for today was believed to be out of the playoff conversation a month ago. But a recent 5-0-2 surge for the Pittsburgh Penguins, coupled with some struggles from all the teams around them, have catapulted them right back into that conversation! They are now in the thick of the race for the second wildcard spot or third place in the Metro division. At this point, every game is pretty much a “must win” for them.

Of note, there were some question marks for the Lightning after possible injuries in their previous game. Prior to the game, Coach Jon Cooper confirmed that Brandon Hagel would be in the lineup today, but Tanner Jeannot and Anthony Cirelli would be out.

The Playoff Bound vs the Playoff Hopeful

As this Saturday matinee began, it became crystal clear which team was already playoff bound and which team was fighting for its playoff life. From the opening whistle, the Penguins showed urgency to their game. They were buzzing and executed a perfect two on one less than five minutes in. Sidney Crosby found himself with a wide-open net and he does not miss those. 1-0 Penguins.

It took almost until the midway point of the period for the Bolts to muster their first shot on net. They showed a little more life as the period went on. But when the horn went to end the period, the Penguins had a 14-6 advantage on the shot clock and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard.

Things Get Worse in the Second

The Bolts were lucky to come out of the first period down only 1-0. Their luck ran out a little bit in the second. Just six minutes in, Evgeni Malkin scored his 24th of the season to double that lead.

Moments later, the Lightning got their first power play of the game. After some dangerous shorthanded chances, the Bolts finally got set up in the offensive zone. And a familiar sequence. Kucherov to Hedman to Stamkos. The captain absolutely drilled it off the post and in. The Lightning were within one again.

But that was as close as they would come for this frame. Just over two minutes later, Kris Letang would restore the two-goal lead and just over two minutes after that, Malkin scored his second of the period. After 40 minutes, the Lightning trailed 4-1.

Quick Start to Third

After a lackluster 40 minutes, the Bolts would like to at least finish this one up on a respectable note. And they got off to an excellent start. Just 25 seconds in, Nick Paul hammered a shot past goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic to pull his team within two goals.

A scary moment a little over six minutes in. Hadyn Fleury collided with referee Steve Kozari at center ice. Both went down and stayed down. Eventually, Fleury managed to get up and make his way to the locker room (wincing in pain all the way). He would not return. Kozari, on the other hand, was not able to get up on his own. He was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher. Reports say that he lost consciousness momentarily, but he was conscious as he got wheeled off. In a very nice moment, the teams cleared their benches to tap their sticks on the ice and show support for Kozari. Thoughts and prayers for Steve Kozari.

Bolts Make it Interesting

The playoff bound Bolts decided not to go away. They decided they were going to fight back. At 7:23, Anthony Duclair took a feed from Kucherov and fired a rocket past Nedeljkovic to once again pull his team within a goal.

Then, Marcus Pettersson took a penalty for tripping Nick Paul. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… on the power play, Kucherov to Hedman to Stamkos! And this game is all tied up at four.

Unfortunately, the Penguins broke the tie four minutes later. Lightning nemesis Michael Bunting scored his 18th of the season to give Pittsburgh a 5-4 lead.

The Bolts came close in the dying minutes- especially when Marcus Pettersson sent the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. With Andrei Vasilevskiy already on the bench for the extra attacker, this gave the Lightning a two-man advantage. But the Penguins, who needed the two points desperately, did what was necessary to hang on and secure the win.

After a sluggish start, the Lightning did some important things in this game. They showed perseverance, resilience, and intensity (even in a game that didn’t really matter to them in the standings). And, they got Kucherov three more points in his battle for the Art Ross Trophy!

Three Stars

1- Evgeni Malkin- 2 goals, 1 assist (3 points)

2- Steven Stamkos- 2 goals

3- Michael Bunting- game winning goal, 2 assists (3 points)

Honorable mention to Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman with three points apiece.

Up Next

The playoff bound Bolts return home after a 2-1-0 playoff clinching road trip and take on the long-ago playoff eliminated Columbus Blue Jackets at Amalie Arena on Tuesday night. Puck drop scheduled for 7pm.

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