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Home ice and seeking advantage; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Pittsburgh Penguins game 3 preview

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The Lightning return home looking to regain the series lead by defending home ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game three of the NHL Easter Conference Finals.

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Through two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins have outshot the Tampa Bay Lightning 109-75 (and a 76-41 registered shot on goal lead) and out-chanced them 52-38.  The Lighting, who were already without their captain, have now dealt with being without their Vezina nominated goaltender.  Seemingly everyone who has ever watched a hockey game has picked the Penguins to win the series.  Even the returns of J.T. Brown and Anton Stralman could not shift public opinion any closer to favoring the Bolts.

Despite all of that, the Lightning return home on Wednesday with the series tied one game each.  They've stolen home ice advantage, meaning they can win the series without winning another game in Pittsburgh.  And if not for the goalpost denying Alex Killorn a goal in the last half of the third period on Monday, the Lightning could be up two games to none in this series.

At this point in the series, optimists and pessimists have equally strong foundations on which to build their arguments.  The Pens have dominated possession.  They could easily have won both games, especially in the aftermath of losing Ben Bishop in game one.  The Bolts showed their resiliency by finding a way to steal a game on the road despite the injuries and presumably, they'll play better at home.  Both teams probably feel like they should be up two games to none and both clubs' fan bases are probably feeling lucky to not be down two games to nothing.  So what now?

Barring a miracle return from either Bishop or Steven Stamkos, the Lightning will continue to operate at less than full capacity.  Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Bolts' 21 year old backup goalie, did more than anyone could expect in his game two start in net.  He was the major reason the game went all the way to overtime, pretty clearly outperforming opponent and fellow 21 year old goalie Matt Murray.  If Vasy can continue to play the way he did on Monday, the Lightning will be in every game this series.

But relying on a barely drinking-age goalie to carry the team against the best team in the Eastern Conference is not an ideal strategy.  The Lightning needs to find a way to take more possession and maintain its pressure in the offensive zone.  They were able to do that at times in game one but struggled to find any consistency in game two.  After the game, head coach Jon Cooper mentioned that the Lightning were too often "one and done."  Puck recovery and forechecking will be key if the Lightning hope to reverse that trend.  Doing so would also slow the Pens' transition game, which looked dominant at times in game two.

Elaborating further on the possession disparity, Cooper said yesterday, "I think we've put ourselves in positions to have the puck more, but we're not being very smart about how we're playing. We're not playing as a group of five on the ice. We're kind of -- we're in all like different segments, playing in different zones, changing when we shouldn't, and when you're not in unison, you're not going to have the puck a whole lot of time."

It will be interesting to see how the Bolts respond in game three.  Cooper has never hesitated to make adjustments to lines and defensive pairings if he feels change is needed.  Given that quote suggesting that the team was disorganized, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him tweak the lineup.  The line of Valtteri Filppula, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin had a particularly rough night on Monday.  While Drouin scored one of the team's two goals, the line overall had a -15 shot differential at even strength according to corsica.hockey.  If Cooper looks to make a change, that might be a place to start.

Game three will likely see Ryan Callahan return to the lineup after missing Monday with the flu.  Any suggestion that Stamkos or Bishop might return remains purely speculative.  If the Lightning hopes to regain the lead in the series, they will need to rediscover some of what was effective in the first two periods of game one.  Returning home should give the team a spark.  As Tyler Johnson said yesterday, "Our fans are awesome. The building's electric. It's amazing."  And it should be.  This is the Eastern Conference Finals.  Game three starts tonight at 8PM.

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