The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to put it all together at some point.
The little mistakes will be cleaned up; the mid-game lulls will be eradicated; some tinkers will be make to the penalty kill and they'll stop giving up so many man-advantage goals. Until then, the Bolts will remain a rung below the league's elite teams.
On Saturday afternoon versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Bolts made a few too many errors -- and got a few bad breaks -- en route to a 4-3 overtime loss to one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, on the road.
There's no shame in the end result -- 5 of a possible 6 points on a three-game road swing and a 99.9% chance to make the playoffs. But there's still more work to do to secure a favorable first-round match-up and a chance to advance in what could be a wild Eastern Conference playoffs.
As usual, the Bolts started strong on the road, defending superstar forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin well and keeping the Pens out of the high-scoring area while getting a few good looks on Pens goalie Jeff Zatkoff. Outside of a questionable boarding penalty to Ryan Malone where Robert Bortuzzo clearly turned into the hit, the Lightning didn't make any big mistakes and they ended the period with a small edge in shots (8-6) and the better of scoring chances, but no goals to show for it.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the Pens came out in the second period a much different team, pressuring the Lightning puck carriers and attacking relentlessly. The Bolts looked a little taken aback by the early pressure, and Tyler Johnson went to the penalty box after hooking Sidney Crosby. The Pens power play -- one of the best in the league -- made quick work of the still-abysmal Tampa Bay penalty kill, as Evgeni Malkin fed a diagonal pass through the slot to Crosby for a right circle one-timer to open the scoring.
After a fluid, open first period, five more minor penalties were called in the second period, giving the advantage to the Pens, a much more successful special teams club. But it was the Lightning who converted on the power play to tie the game after a great three-man play at the top of the umbrella formation by Steven Stamkos at the left circle, Victor Hedman at center point, and Valterri Filppula on the right. Hedman distributed the puck while roving the blue line and set Stamkos up in his wheelhouse a few times. The Pens started sagging to that side, and Stamkos took advantage, faking the one-timer and sliding a pass through to Filppula for a quich shot that Zatkoff couldn't stop, tying the game 1-1.
With the whistles mostly away again in the third period, play opened up again. Tampa Bay pushed back after a mediocre second, and with just over 11 minutes remaining, took a 2-1 lead on a rebound goal by Steven Stamkos. The play was set up nicely by Teddy Purcell holding the attacking blue line and not letting the Pens out of their own zone cleanly.
Unfortunately, as has been the case lately, the Lightning would fail to hold the lead. They didn't get much help from the officials, who called a head-scratcher of a slashing penalty on Alex Killorn when Evgeni Malkin was lightly contacted, causing him to drop his stick and the arm to go up. Predictably, Malkin scored quickly on the ensuring power play, potting a rebound of a good wrist shot by Matt Niskanen from the high slot.
With perhaps his most egregious error of the entire season, Tyler Johnson calmly collected a loose puck in the defensive zone and looked to make an outlet pass up the middle of the ice (almost always a no-no) to an unaware J.T. Brown, who was looking to skate wide and fill the left lane. Jussi Jokinen intercepted the attempt and found a cherry-picking Evgeni Malkin alone in front of Anders Lindback. Malkin lifted a wicked backhand top-shelf to give the Pens the lead late.
With the outlook grim, Calder hopeful Ondrej Palat put the team on his back with a single-handed effort to tie it. Starting with an outlet feed at the defending blue line and Tampa Bay changing, Palat carried the puck in against a four man-across defense at the blue line for Pittsburgh. Palat danced around fellow rookie Olli Maata and lifted a quick wrist shot past Zatkoff, who failed in his poke check attempt, to tie the game with 1:22 remaining.
The Bolts then weathered a small pushback from the Pens to get the game to overtime and secure a point.
In overtime, it was a mental mistake that undid the Lightning. Before even getting a chance to get their feet wet in the five minute 4v4 session, the Lightning were called for a too many men infraction, sending the Pens to their sixth power play of the afternoon, this one of the deadly 4v3 variety. The Pens wasted no time in setting up a blistering one-timer from the right side for James Neal, who scored and gave the Pens the 4-3 OT victory.
- Criticizing officials is usually viewed as a cop-out or excuse for a team that probably didn't deserve to win anyways, and the Bolts had enough self-inflicted wounds tonight that they probably deserved the final outcome. That said, you can't ignore the effect the officials had on this game. Handing a team with Pittsburgh's lethality on the man-advantage power plays for little touch fouls like Steven Stamkos' hold in the second period or Alex Killorn's slash in the third is unduly affecting the outcome of a game. The Pens were 3/6 on the power play against the atrocious Lightning penalty kill.
- A small silver lining: at 5v5, the Bolts more than held their own, with a 50.0% Corsi For and 52.2% Fenwick For at 5v5. If the Lightning meet the Pens in the playoffs, they simply must find a way to play the majority of the games at 5v5. If they do, they will have a chance. But Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal are simply too deadly on the power play.
- Anders Lindback started this game, spelling workhorse Ben Bishop. He gave up 4 goals on 29 shots (.862 save percentage) but the Pens only scored one goal at even strength. Lindback's 5v5 save percentage? A sparkling .938.
- Nate Thompson was the only Lightning regular over 50% on faceoffs (60%). This continues to be a smaller area of concern for the Bolts.
- The top three centers for the Pens? All over 60%. (Crosby and Sutter, 67%; Malkin 60%).