The Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 on Thursday night. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored the only goal for the Lightning. Danton Heinen, Sidney Crosby, Brock McGinn, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel scored for the Penguins. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 35 of 39 shots while Tristan Jarry stopped 20 of 21. Let’s get into it.
Through and through, the Penguins slapped the Lightning around this evening—especially in the first period. Tampa Bay struggled to do much of anything well for the opening 20 minutes and Pittsburgh pounced on them repeatedly. The first goal by Heinen provides a good microcosm of Tampa Bay’s horrid first period.
Mathieu Joseph had the bad turnover in the neutral zone, and compounded the error with a weak backcheck not picking up Heinen in the slot to prevent the goal. Tampa Bay’s defense was a little too passive for my liking on this goal. They did a decent enough job eliminating two scoring options, but Heinen coasted in with little resistance while Joseph was caught puck watching for too long.
A few minutes later, Tampa Bay’s weak neutral zone game provided an odd-man rush that saw Erik Cernak break up a 2-on-1, but get called for tripping as a result (essentially the only good call of the evening by the officiating crew). The ensuing power-play was a textbook example of how “not to defend a power-play” by the Lightning.
Just look at how open Crosby is on this goal. It’s as if he wasn’t even on the ice and the Lightning did not think he was a shooting threat. Sidney Crosby folks, Sidney freaking Crosby. Whether it was a miscommunication by the forwards or just a brain fart it’s inexcusable to leave Sidney Crosby that open.
It took the Lightning until the 17-minute mark of the period to actually generate any form of pressure on Jarry, and even then it was middling due to Pittsburgh’s tenacious defense blocking nearly every opportunity. Frustration boiled over in the dying seconds as Brayden Point fought Kris Letang, with the intention of spurring his team to wake up in the following period.
In that manner, Point semi-succeeded. The Lightning played better during the middle frame, but it was an iffy period overall. Pittsburgh was still pressuring for long stretches of time where Vasilevskiy was the only thing keeping the game close. It mattered, even more, when the Lightning fourth line broke the shutout just six minutes into the period.
Pressure—something the Lightning struggled all evening to maintain finally broke through by a player no one expected to score. Pat Maroon makes a great play and pass here to break Bellemare free, and the veteran center sneaks it past Jarry to give the Lightning some life. That life lasted for several shifts as Tampa Bay pushed for the equalizer, but Pittsburgh held strong throughout this push. Then the game opened up a bit more and both teams started trading pressure and chances, but the edge was towards Pittsburgh. Their relentless forecheck and offensive strategy flummoxed the Lightning—who looked stagnant and slow in their own end. Yet, Vasilevskiy was the star during these stretches of play. Eliminating scoring chances as his life depended on it.
It’s unfortunate his team did little to help him.
A bad pass from Ondrej Palat and an over-aggressive Mikhail Sergachev sprung this breakaway goal for McGinn and, for as stellar as Vasilevskiy was earlier in the period, he’s still human and he could only stand on his head for so long. It finally bit the Lightning here when Pittsburgh regained their two-goal lead.
Tampa Bay didn’t back down though as scoring chances for Taylor Raddysh, Ross Colton, Ryan McDonagh, Bellemare, Maroon, and Stamkos all came in the following minutes after McGinn’s goal. The frustration finally exploded when Corey Perry slashed Mark Friedman’s stick out of his hand and mayhem broke loose in front of the Pittsburgh net. Anthony Cirelli wrestled Bryan Rust down to the ice while Perry was swarmed by Penguins skaters.
Tempers throughout the Lightning lineup flew after this scrum provided Pittsburgh with a 5-on-3 power-play. Jon Cooper, ultimately fed up with the officiating crew’s seemingly favoritism toward Pittsburgh (who had not been on the penalty kill all evening even though there were clear calls let go), let loose a verbal barrage at Wes McCauley. It ultimately got the bench boss ejected for the first time in his NHL career.
Jon Cooper gets ejected from Penguins/Lightning pic.twitter.com/e6fGEJqhBU— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) March 4, 2022
On one hand, it’s entirely understandable why Cooper lost his cool during the game. On the other, you'd expect a head coach, especially the longest tenured coach in the NHL, to know better than to do this. However, I feel this was something Cooper needed to do to remind his team that he has their backs. The coach/player dynamic is one that a lot of fans do not get to see. It’s important for players to know their coach has their back and is willing to take some heat for them. It’s the foundation of Cooper’s coaching style, and tonight was a reinforcement of that.
It did little to alter the outcome, but messages like this stick in players’ minds.
It’s rare that Tampa Bay is dramatically outshot in a game, but just five minutes into the third period the shot clock read 34-13 (40-21 by games end) in favor of Pittsburgh. The inability to adapt to Pittsburgh's in-game strategy is the biggest reason why Tampa Bay struggled so much this evening, but there was also a relative unwillingness to adapt. Usually, the Lightning is good at changing things period by period, but tonight was different. A kind of arrogant mindset and it bit them repeatedly tonight. It didn’t make matters any better as Malkin broke through to extend Pittsburgh's lead once again.
Down three goals usually means a team will take their foot off the gas, but not the Lightning. They kept pushing, trying to claw their way back into the game. It finally resulted in their first power-play of the game near the period's midway point. Unfortunately, overpassing and an unwillingness to shoot ruined Tampa Bay’s chance to creep back into the game.
Tampa Bay then pulled Vasilevskiy with seven minutes left in regulation to try and find another goal, but after maintaining offensive pressure for a minute and a half they turned the puck over and Jake Guentzel scored on an empty net to make it 5-1
One bad game doesn’t make a season, nor does it define a team. Tampa Bay is better than they displayed this evening, and will bounce back moving forward—they’re too talented not to. Tonight’s game showed that sometimes games don’t go the way you want and sticking to the plan can be detrimental. However, Tampa Bay’s mantra of going about things is a proven way to win, it just wasn’t tonight. The Lightning also lost control of first place in the division as the Florida Panthers whipped the Ottawa Senators 3-0. The last month of the season is going to be a dog fight between Tampa Bay, Florida, and Toronto to see who will secure that coveted division winner playoff spot. The loser is set to face one of the best teams in the league in the first round.