The opening puck drop of the NHL season is always an optimistic time. One that elicits a euphoric sense of ‘what could be’, and the first game of the 2021-2022 NHL season was no different. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, it opened a new chapter for a franchise marching toward the fabled term of a dynasty. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was an early glimpse of what their roster looks like sans Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; a premise that every year inches closer to reality.
Unfortunately, for the Lightning, their season started off with a dud as they fell to the Penguins 6-2 in a sluggish and uninspired affair. For the Penguins, a Crosby and Malkin-less lineup played a perfect road game en route to a surprising season-opening win.
For the first 20 minutes, it looked like the pregame banner-raising ceremony did little to motivate the Lightning on the ice. There were flashes of control and the quintessential ‘Lightning style’, but it was the Penguins who controlled the opening frame. The Lightning did themselves no favors with poor passing and sloppy play overall, but Pittsburgh earned their offensive pressure through a simple game plan - hustle. Nary a single puck carrier for the Lightning had more than a half-second with the puck before a Penguins skater was on top of them, harassing, whacking, and forcing play into Tampa’s zone.
However, there was one constant for the Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy. The reigning Conn Smythe winner looked to be in postseason form by neutralizing all of Pittsburgh’s 14 first-period shots including three odd-man rushes and a breakaway. Leaving the first period tied can only be looked at as a gift.
Unfortunately, that gift only lasted 12 seconds into the second frame as Vasilevskiy’s clearing attempt was intercepted by Jeff Carter who fed it to an uncovered Danton Heinen for arguably the easiest first goal of any season.
Normally, Tampa Bay would aggressively push back and tilt play in their favor after a goal against, instead, their sloppy play continued as Zach Bogosian was caught looking as Brian Boyle got behind him for an open pass before beating Vasilevskiy cleanly to make it 2-0.
At this point, it appeared Tampa Bay woke up a bit as they started to pin Pittsburgh in their own end and force Tristan Jarry (who was somehow not sleeping given how little work he had done thus far). A few controlled shifts from the fourth and third lines planted the seeds of momentum for the Lightning, but it quickly dissipated as Pittsburgh refused to be intimidated. Their aggressive, tightly grouped, risk-averse attack flummoxed the Lightning through the first 30 minutes of the game.
Then, a glimmer of hope revealed itself - a power-play. With Heinen in the box for tripping at 12:56, the Lightning power-play had an opportunity to establish some much-needed momentum. The top unit tried their go-to play of using Brayden Point in the bumper position, but Jarry and the Penguins thwarted every attempt at it. There were flashes from the Lightning, just nowhere near enough to make Pittsburgh sweat with a man down.
Several minutes after their first power-play of the season, Tampa went on their first penalty kill of the season with a too-many-men on the ice call. Luckily, their penalty kill looked sharper than their power-play; however, the Lightning still struggled with poor clearing attempts and passes.
A better second period was promising to see even though the results were firmly in Pittsburgh's favor, but Tampa Bay’s funk was clear to see.
Defensive breakouts, neutral zone transitions, passing in all three zones, and a lack of net-front presence were the most apparent issues through 40 minutes. Part of the issue stemmed from Pittsburgh’s game plan and execution, the other part was Tampa’s own inability to adjust.
The third period saw Tampa Bay gain a bit more control, but by and large, Pittsburgh controlled the pace. It felt as though everything the Lightning tried went wrong. They couldn’t win puck battles, they got outworked on the boards, they were chasing too much in the defensive zone, etc. It very much felt like a “one of those nights” game.
Taylor Raddysh is certainly going to want to erase the memory of his first NHL game. The rookie didn’t look that effective individually, he had two hideous turnovers in the first period and was largely invisible whenever the fourth line was on the ice. Still, Tampa Bay didn’t give up, to their credit.
Coach Jon Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy early to get some extra pressure and it appeared to have paid off as Anthony Cirelli tipped a point shot to make it 3-1.
Then, the wheels started to come off. Over the next six minutes, four goals were scored, one by the Lightning and three by the Penguins (all into an empty net).
It’s interesting that Cooper kept pulling Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker, but this evening was just not in the Lightning’s favor. Between poor play and an opponent who executed a perfect road game, along with a few poor bounces, this was a game the Lightning will likely just shrug off and move on. This certainly wasn’t how they wanted to start their march toward a possible three-peat, but an early humbling could very well be what the team needs after a rocky preseason.
Early (and I mean early) signs show that the Lightning still doesn’t really know how to replace Yanni Gourde’s impact. The match-up workload was always going to increase for Tampa’s top six, but they struggled this evening. There were flashes of control and the normal Lightning dominance, but far too often they were pinned in the defensive zone chasing the Penguins.
Plainly put, Tampa Bay was outworked in all facets of the game. We can wax poetic about the reasons, but at the end of the day, they just weren’t even close to good enough this evening.
The pregame ceremony was as fantastic as it seemed on the broadcast. The electricity in the arena emanated through every corner. An absolute master class performance from the Lightning organization celebrating their accomplishment. It’s just too bad the on-ice product didn’t meet that standard tonight.