Pittsburgh Penguins Struck by Lightning; Fall 4-2


The Pittsburgh Penguins fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in an electrifying battle of the two current Eastern wildcard teams.

A last-minute goalie change thrust Jeff Zatkoff into the net against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  With Marc-Andre Fleury ill, the unexpected swap seemed to throw the Pittsburgh Penguins for a loop early.

About halfway into the first period, Anton Strålman opened the scoring for Tampa Bay. Just before, a Penguin shot hit the goalpost behind Ben Bishop; the Bolts immediately took the puck the other way and cashed in.

Soon after, Tampa captain Steven Stamkos scored his 300th career goal. Alex Killorn dished the puck to Stamkos who made no mistakes with a mostly empty net.

Stamkos is the second-youngest active player to reach the 300 goal mark, behind Alex Ovechkin. It’s an impressive accomplishment – if only it hadn’t been against the Penguins.

Continuing the first-period struggle, Sidney Crosby took a roughing penalty against Jonathan Marchessault. Usually when Crosby takes penalties, it’s a sure sign that he’s losing his composure and the rest of the team will be quick to follow. 

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However, the penalty-killers did their job, freeing Sid from the box without incurring further damage. At one point, Killorn bowled over Zatkoff and left the net wide open; Ben Lovejoy sacrificed his body to block a Stamkos shot.

Lovejoy limped down the tunnel but quickly returned to the bench. Happy 32nd birthday, Ben. That’s Stamkos’s gift to you.

Tempers boiled over soon thereafter as Kris Letang and J.T. Brown got into a scrum in front of Zatkoff. Trevor Daley wormed his way in there as well, but Letang and Brown got the matching penalties.

The play of both teams during the ensuing 4-on-4 was the same as it had been during full-strength. There were quite a few botched passes and shots into traffic on both sides, and a lot of fast-paced, end-to-end play with no sustained zone pressure.

Neither side scored during the 4-on-4 but the Penguins had some great chances right as it ended. Olli Maatta shot the puck as he was falling, which led to a few more pleasantries being exchanged in front of the net.

Though the Bolts are overall larger than the Penguins (6’7″ Bishop, 6’6″ Victor Hedman, 6’7″ Brian Boyle, 6’7″ Andrej Sustr, 6’5″ Braydon Coburn… the list goes on) the Penguins didn’t shy away from physical play. Carl Hagelin threw a monstrous hit on Hedman near the end of the first period, slamming him into the boards.

As the period expired, the players converged on one another. Crosby and his sparring partner Tyler Johnson got matching penalties, which would start the second period on another 4-on-4.

Bishop’s record in Pittsburgh is abysmal, as is Tampa’s: before today’s game, the Penguins won 9 straight games against the Bolts at home. Sparked by the chippy play to end the first and hoping Bishop’s bad luck in CONSOL Energy Center would kick in, the Penguins came back with guns blazing in the second period.

Still, the matching minor penalties petered out with no added score. That was quickly compensated for by the Bolts, who made it 3-0 mere moments later. A point shot by Matt Carle bounced off Crosby’s leg and trickled through Zatkoff. It was Carle’s first goal of the season. 

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This is not a new phenomenon: whenever Crosby gets frustrated and takes penalties, he’s thrown off for the rest of the game. That last goal was a bit of bad luck for him, but he’s got to get better at composing himself in these situations.

Leading by example is important, and in some cases having a fiery, physical captain will inspire the team to play fast, tough, and effectively. The Penguins are, more often than not, inspired to fall apart, lose their cool, and take nonstop penalties.

Proving that point, Daley was aggressively interfered with by Cedric Paquette, retaliated, and took a double-minor. Conor Sheary served the extra penalty.

Luckily, the Penguins started to actually get their game together while they were a man down. Tom Kuhnhackl stole the puck from a Bolt, broke away down the ice, and roofed a backhand shot over Bishop. Kuhnhackl’s first NHL goal was shorthanded and couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Penguins were more galvanized by the goal than they had been by any of the physical play. Their speed picked up, the bench and crowd got involved, and pressure was stronger. Lovejoy took a hard hit from Brown and again went down the tunnel; Hagelin then threw Brown into the boards.

Holding players both on their own team and other teams accountable for their play and hits is a sign this Pittsburgh team is really gelling right now. Their own play has been surging, and even new guys like Hagelin sticking up for their teammates sets a good tone.

The momentum was short lived, though; after a breach in defensive coverage by Derrick Pouliot, Tyler Johnson scored from the front of the net to make it 4-1.

The Penguins finally got a real powerplay as Ondrej Palat took a high-sticking penalty with just over five minutes left in the second period. Unfortunately, it only lasted for thirty five seconds. Phil Kessel got called for a hook, negating it back to another 4-on-4.

The experiment of having Kessel and Crosby on the same line failed for Mike Johnston but immediately succeeded for Mike Sullivan – at least for one game. Though Kessel and Crosby started on the same line today, Sullivan shifted the lines in desperation and didn’t put them together again.

Moments later, Scott Wilson kept the Penguins in it as he scored the Pens’ second of the game, just before Crosby drew a penalty. Bryan Rust got an assist, giving bottom-six players two goals and an assist on the game.

The Penguins’ luck looked like it had finally turned around: Sustr was called for high-sticking and the Penguins went to a 5-on-3. However, the period ended with the boys in black and gold still trailing 4-2.

The 5-on-3 amounted to nothing and the third period went on in the status quo.

Feb 20, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Alex Killorn (17) checks Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 20, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Alex Killorn (17) checks Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

A confusing sequence in which Letang lost his own stick while being pressured by Paquette and then stole Paquette’s stick out of his hands resulted in four minutes of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Nikita Kucherov took a high-sticking penalty after half the Letang penalty was killed, resulting in yet another 4-on-4.

This recap probably sounds like a broken record by now, but Letang’s penalty as well as the 4-on-4 were both killed.

Zatkoff was finally pulled for the extra attacker with just under 2 minutes left in the third period – to no avail. The two teams currently sitting in the Eastern Conference wildcard spots battled hard, but the Bolts ultimately got the upper hand.

Near the end of the game, Kucherov blocked a shot with his shin and could barely stand enough to get off the ice on his own, only getting down the tunnel with major assistance. Though that’s never good to see, both teams lost a player to shot-blocking today (Lovejoy never returned after his second injury).

The Penguins travel to Buffalo for the second game in a weekend back-to-back  and look to rebound.  Hopefully, Fleury has taken his DayQuil and will be back in net by then.