Home ice hasn’t been much of an advantage in the first-round playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, with the visitors winning four of the first five games. So, after the Bolts went to Pittsburgh for Saturday’s Game 5 and laid an 8-2 beating on the Pens to avoid elimination, they knew exactly how to handle Game 6 back home.
Treat it like a road game.
“We just tried to make it feel like we were on the road again,” said Lightning star forward Steven Stamkos, after his club spent Sunday night at a local hotel. “We’re prepared. You could just tell in the room today that everyone’s got that game face on, that intensity.”
And it worked.
The Penguins got on the board first but, for the first time in this series, the team that opened the scoring failed to come out on top as the Lightning emerged with the 4-2 win. Tampa Bay has now come all the way back from a 3-1 deficit to make this either team’s series in Wednesday’s decisive Game 7.
The Bolts did it by playing their best even-strength game of the series. After being burned by Tampa Bay’s lethal power play through the first five contests, Pittsburgh’s penalty kill found a way to keep the Lightning off the board on three chances with the man-advantage in Game 6. But the Lightning got all of its goals 5-on-5, while the Penguins’ power play – a brutal 1-for-30 in the series – couldn’t take advantage of any of its five opportunities.
“It was a big factor in the game, obviously,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “And it’s an area that we know is a decisive thing in the playoffs, the special teams battle.”
Such was Pittsburgh’s luck in special teams situations that even a penalty shot went awry. Speedy forward Chris Conner earned the opportunity after being hauled down on a breakaway but, coming in against Tampa netminder Dwayne Roloson, the puck slid off of his stick. The Lightning, meanwhile, created much of its own luck, crashing the Pittsburgh net at every opportunity and getting chances – and goals – from being persistent on rebounds.
Tampa didn’t give the Penguins much and, every time Pittsburgh got a scrap of momentum, the Bolts managed to steal it away. With the score 2-1 Lightning early in the third, Penguins center Jordan Staal finally scored his first of the playoffs, and it felt like a big one, tying the game at 2-2. Pittsburgh almost took the lead on big chances by Max Talbot, then Pascal Dupuis, but Roloson came up with the clutch saves.
“Goalies have to be outstanding in the playoffs for your team to win and, in key moments, even more,” said Lightning head coach Guy Boucher. “He came up with some big saves, and that was an uplift for the team.”
Then, just over a minute after Staal’s goal, Tampa’s Steve Downie came the other way and reclaimed the lead for his team. Later in the period, the Lightning’s Ryan Malone, a former Penguin and native Pittsburgher, added an exclamation point to the final score to put the game away.
“In the end, we were coming from behind and they got the response goal after we tied the game up,” Bylsma said. “They got a couple of big saves, and then they get the go-ahead goal. Some swings in momentum, and they were very strong playing defensively after they got the lead.”
Roloson stopped 27 of 29 shots, while Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury could have been better, stopping just 17 of the 21 he faced. The goals he allowed were hardworking ones, however, scored not by the Lightning’s most highly skilled players like Stamkos, Martin St. Louis or Vinny Lecavalier, but by Teddy Purcell, Sean Bergenheim, Downie – who had three points on the night – and Malone.
“That was the trademark of our team [this year],” Boucher said. “The fourth liners, third liners, grinders, defensemen, we always had new heroes every game. These guys, who have been called ‘no-names,’ certainly have a name for us. I’ve always counted on them, and they still make the difference.”
Now the best-of-seven is down to a best-of-one. Bylsma’s team has some unpleasant Game 7 memories from last year’s second-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens that they’d like to exorcise.
“I think there is some experience to be drawn from the emotion and experience of playing a Game 7, a do-or-die for both teams,” Bylsma said. “I think we’ll lean on some of those experiences, but we also have to go out and play the game and not just talk about what we’ve learned in the past. It’s a different team, a different year, and we’re going to have to be ready and refocused to open that game.”
“We know the way we can play,” Fleury said. “We’ve got to go in there and be hungry to win it, try to forget about the last couple losses and try to be positive. We know we can beat these guys.”
They’ll face a steep challenge in this young Lightning club, which has done plenty of maturing over the past six games and only grows more confident as the series wears on.
“We’re learning. That was our theme before the series started,” Boucher said. “We weren’t kidding ourselves; we’ve got less experience than them, and the guys who didn’t have experience had to learn from the guys who did. Game after game, we didn’t lose focus of what we had to learn to get better and make sure that we figure out what the playoffs were about. And it’s important that we keep on learning.”
Their next lesson is a Game 7 that will be the first such experience for several of its players – technically, at least.
“My opinion differs on this one, because we’ve just played two 7’s,” Boucher said. “That’s the position we were in. The fifth game for us was a do-or-die, the sixth game for us was a do-or-die, the seventh game for us is a do-or-die. We’ve just played two.”