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Lightning best Penguins 5-4 in a feisty affair

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J.T. Miller scored the game winner while the Lightning offense came to life this evening.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the night, Pittsburgh was on a three-game losing streak while Tampa Bay was on a two-game losing streak. With their 5-4 victory, the Lightning extended Pittsburgh’s streak to four games. In those four games, the Penguins have been outscored 15-8. The Lightning offense, which had been held to two goals or less in four of their last five games, exploded for five this evening as their depth scoring outshined Pittsburgh’s.

It was a rather chippy game after the opening period with two fights breaking out and more than a few scrums after the play. Some would call it playoff atmosphere, I would call it “one team actively going out of their way to start nonsense instead of playing hockey”. To the recap we go.

1st Period

The opening 50 seconds saw the line of Brayden Point-Yanni Gourde-Tyler Johnson cycle the puck in the offensive zone and generate pressure, but were unable to get anything on net. The first real scoring chance came when Ondrej Palat was set up by Nikita Kucherov in the slot only to have Casey DeSmith swallow it. It wasn’t until the three-minute mark that Pittsburgh pushed back with the Sidney Crosby line working the puck along the boards and below the goal line. Outside of that, the opening five minutes saw the Lightning control 61% of the shot attempts and all of the momentum.

That was until the seventh minute where Crosby set up Bryan Rust in the slot where Andrei Vasilevskiy absolutely robbed him of a goal with his glove.

I’m not even surprised anymore. It’s just what Vasilevskiy does. Though, it’d be nice if the team didn’t allow these kinds of opportunities multiple times a game.

As the midway point of the period approached, the pace started to slow down due to Pittsburgh controlling play in the offensive zone more consistently. Pittsburgh isn’t a fast team in the same vein that Tampa Bay is, but they’re extremely adept at controlling play along the boards and below the goal line when in the offensive zone. This was most evident when Crosby was on the ice. When he wasn’t Pittsburgh struggled to maintain consistency. Another reason the pace slowed down was due to Pittsburgh’s approach in the neutral zone. They actively forced the Lightning into some bad passes in the neutral zone and constantly had at least one defender near a Lightning forward.

Tampa Bay did adapt and started to implement shorter passes to open up the ice and it worked when Victor Hedman and Point were on a partial 2-on-1 that was set up by Yanni Gourde making a touch pass near the offensive blue line.

Unfortunately, it was Pittsburgh who struck first on a golden opportunity.

Now, the immediate thing is to blame Kucherov for turning the puck over, but let’s hold that thought for a moment. First, he’s against two Penguins, including Sidney Crosby. Second, what in the world is Dan Girardi doing here? I’m assuming he was expecting a pass from Kucherov, but how Girardi doesn’t recognize that he has two defenders near him and still cruises into the slot baffles me. This left Hedman on his own to thwart a 2-on-1 and even sprawling out to stop a pass wasn’t enough to negate (checks notes) Garrett Wilson from scoring his first career goal. Note, Garrett Wilson isn’t some young prospect that Pittsburgh has (something I had initially thought), he’s a 27 year old with six points in 59 career games.

For some reason, the Lightning are a prime target for first career goal scorers. It’s kind of weird.

Pittsburgh’s lead only lasted 1:26 before Tampa Bay struck back.

Nothing prettier than a Norris winner picking a pass off to set up a 2-on-0 and a goal. Nothing to break down here — Hedman makes this happen. The give-and-go between Point and Gourde (and the goal) is the cherry on top. Let’s give the Big Swede some proper love here folks.

The Lightning weren’t finished though. Erik Cernak made sure of that with his second goal of the season 52 seconds later.

We deride Cedric Paquette for his penchant for taking bad penalties, but the man is one hell of a tenacious player. He settles down the pass from Braydon Coburn as he enters the offensive zone, spins around to give himself space and manages to gain the attention of two Penguins defenders. This gave Cernak all the time in the world to wind up for a one-timer which Paquette easily fed since Jared McCann (the second defender on the play who should’ve seen Cernak) was out of position.

Tampa Bay continued to dictate the pace as the period wound down and entered the first intermission controlling 55% of the shot attempts at 5v5 and a healthy lead in xGF%.

2nd Period

The first three minutes of the second were controlled by Tampa Bay. The Point line continued to pressure Pittsburgh and their forechecking eventually led to a golden chance from Hedman that rang off the post. Pittsburgh had one dangerous opportunity in that time span where Patric Hornqvist set up Jared McCann for a great chance that was thwarted by Vasilevskiy.

Shortly after this, a play was whistled down when Hornqvist went offside. Hornqvist still fired a shot at Vasilevskiy and drew the ire of Cernak who shoved him into the boards and started the first real scrum of the game. This is when the whole period got wonky.

Pittsburgh is a team that thoroughly enjoys getting under the opponent’s skin. They have talent, but they choose to be a team that takes some liberties at times (the Lightning aren’t innocent of this by any stretch of the imagination, we have Cedric Paquette out there playing wrecking ball). It’s how Pittsburgh takes advantage of their opponent; irritate them into bad penalties and bad plays, then capitalize with a combination of the seventh best power-play in the league and having one of the best centers to play the game (and one of the best one/two center combinations in league history when Evgeni Malkin is healthy).

From the Cernak/Hornqvist scrum to the last four minutes, Pittsburgh dictated the period. This led to a tripping penalty on Ondrej Palat at 7:19 that gave Pittsburgh the first power-play of the game. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the puck went into the their net during the man advantage.

Anthony Cirelli starts this play by stopping Crosby from recovering the puck and allowing Ryan McDonagh to feed an outlet pass to Alex Killorn. It’s then a 2-on-1 against Kris Letang. Killorn sauces a pass to Cirelli who dekes around DeSmith to secure his 10th goal of the season (fourth shorthanded — tied for the league lead). Baby boy Cirelli has no chill on the penalty kill.

Pittsburgh’s power-play was negated shortly after when Nick Bjugstad took a high-sticking penalty at 7:45. Interestingly, the Lightning haven’t been an especially good team at 4-on-4 play. Pittsburgh proved that when Jared McCann scored his 10th of the season 46 seconds into 4-on-4 play.

At first glance, this is on Vasilevskiy. A shot from that angle with no screen should never go in. However, on replay you can see Girardi’s stick redirect the shot just enough to throw Vasilevskiy off guard. The knuckles and drops sooner than Vasilevskiy expected which beat him on the glove side. Unfortunate, but that’s hockey for you. Girardi’s rough night wouldn’t end here though.

Tampa Bay did surge back at the midway point, but were unable to get anything past DeSmith during that time span. Adam Erne and Teddy Blueger brought us the first fight of the evening. Though, it wasn’t much of a fight. Neither really landed any punches and it was essentially a swinging match with some whiffs. They’d both sit for the next five minutes.

5v5 play was halted yet again when Sidney Crosby and Tyler Johnson were both penalized for roughing at 13:14.

(I’d use a GIF, but I refuse to use homer Pittsburgher tweets who think this was a fair retaliation for a clean hit)

Pittsburgh continued to control the game and almost tied it when Phil Kessel had the puck in front with a sprawled out Vasilevskiy desperately trying to stop him. Somehow, Kessel missed the gaping net and shot it into Vasilevskiy who promptly covered it up for a whistle.

Pittsburgh’s pressure would continue moments later and they’d knot the game at three with Bryan Rust’s 15th of the season.

We give the Big Swede love when he deserves it, and we also criticize him when needed. Hedman’s insistence to jab at Rust is baffling. Rust is clearly not paying attention to him and keeping his stick on the ice for any kind of pass. That pass comes from Jake Guentzel while Hedman’s stick is still in the air. This whole thing could’ve been avoided if Hedman focused on lifting Rust’s stick instead of pushing on him.

The final five minutes of the period was mostly a back and forth affair with the Lightning gaining the edge in possession, but the shenanigans refused to stop. At 17:41, Jack Johnson and Alex Killorn dropped the gloves for a fight that actually resembled one. At least until Killorn ducked a punch and lost his balance (which is very on brand for him) which effectively ended the bout.

Overall, the second featured some ugly hockey. I found myself rolling my eyes every time a scrum broke out and simply wanted some hockey to be played. Let me be clear, that wasn’t “playoff hockey”, that was just needless physicality for a team desperate to avoid a four game losing streak. Playoff atmosphere feels meaningful. This felt like Pittsburgh clinging to anything to keep themselves in the game and Tampa Bay falling for the bait hook line and sinker.

3rd Period

Jon Cooper decided to alter his top-six lineup when he switched Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov on their respective lines. This, I’m assuming was to get them going since the top lines hadn’t been especially great in the second period. The early part of the third period saw little reprieve from the shenanigans of the second. None more apparent than when McDonagh made a great stick play to negate a Letang scoring chance that saw Letang swing his stick around like a madman. This was followed up by Hornqvist throwing a hit that knocked him down and for Paquette to take a few extra jabs at him down on the ice.

As the shenanigans continued, the Lightning controlled the opening half of the period. It paid off when Tyler Johnson scored his 19th of the season with the Penguins defense looking lost.

Stamkos makes a great pass to Palat in the slot and Jack Johnson’s puck watching gave Johnson far too much space to use him as a screen and beat DeSmith on the far side.

The Lightning appeared to ignore much of the chippiness that Pittsburgh wanted to continue and it started to show with the Lightning controlling 63% of the shot attempts with 9:44 left in regulation. Pittsburgh had some minor chances, but their best chance in this stretch was a partial breakaway for Crosby that Vasilevskiy swallowed up.

Tampa Bay’s pressure continued after Crosby’s chance and it eventually paid off when J.T. Miller scored his ninth of the season at 14:03.

When you stand around in the defensive zone and allow players to find spots in your coverage, you’re going to have a bad time. Jake Guentzel is far too late to react to Miller and that’s all the time Miller needs to fire it past DeSmith to give the Lightning their second two-goal lead of the night.

Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, when you’re up against Sidney Crosby you’re never safe. Just 1:19 after Miller’s goal, Crosby set up Tanner Pearson for his ninth of the year.

sigh

Girardi victimized for the third time. He never senses Crosby on him and the rest is too easy for number 87. No one was ready for Crosby to steal the puck and it showed with Pearson being wide open and Yanni Gourde not being able to close the distance to disrupt the shot.

Pittsburgh pushed for the remaining five minutes but nothing especially dangerous was thrown at Vasilevskiy. The Penguins pulled DeSmith around the two-minute mark to give themselves an advantage, but the Lightning negated most of the pressure to close out the game.

Overall, the Lightning controlled 53% of the shot attempts and and the expected goal share.

I wouldn’t categorize is as a “good” win, but a win is a win. It was rather ugly, especially in the second, but these kinds of games happen. Next up for the Lightning is a trip to Sunrise to take on the Florida Panthers. Florida has won three of their last four, and are scrambling to bring themselves back into the wildcard race (they are currently nine points out, which to me is too much).

The Good

Offense!

We all knew the days of scoring four to six goals a game was going to end. It’s entirely unsustainable through a full season. However, the slump that Tampa went through after the All-Star break did have some slightly worried. I called the slump weeks ago and had wasn’t worried about the offense moving forward. It’s especially good to see some of the depth scoring come up this game. It was ultimately the deciding factor for the Lightning this evening.

The Bad

Shenanigans

Physical play doesn’t bother me. Needless physicality and nonsensical scrums annoy me to no end. From the second period on it felt like I was watching two teams that took every small hit, shove, and banter personally and tried to get even on nearly every shift. Honestly, blame goes to both teams for this. Sure, Pittsburgh might have started it with Hornqvist’s shot after the whistle, but Tampa Bay was by no means a victim in this. Paquette was as agitating as he’s ever been, and his extra few jabs when Hornqvist was down on the ice were uncalled for. The Erne fight was laughably dumb for how it started. The Killorn fight saw Killorn kick Johnson’s stick away from him after they were tied up together behind the play; this eventually led to Johnson cross checking him and the fight actually starting (Killorn held up just fine in my eyes, except for the whole losing balance while dodging). Add in the nonsensical misconduct that Erne received for laying a legal hit on Hornqvist and it was just a mess of a game that didn’t need to be. Pittsburgh is better than that as is Tampa Bay.

The Whatever

I got nothing for this section, so, let’s hear what you folks have to say. The backlash from the Johnson hit was stupid, though.