The Pittsburgh Penguins knew their last four attempts to clinch a playoff series at home had come up short. And, going into Saturday’s Game 5, they said all the right things about how they were prepared to buck that trend.
“I think we should look at it the same way they do, as a desperation situation,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “We don’t want to go back to Tampa Bay; we don’t want to give them any life. Especially if you can score early – even if you don’t score first, if you take over the game early – you can make them doubt themselves.”
Pittsburgh certainly held to that script early on. A minute and a half into the contest, Tyler Kennedy blasted a shot at the net, the rebound came out to Chris Kunitz on the other side, and Kunitz beat Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson – but Tampa’s Simon Gagne cleared it out of the blue paint before it crossed the line.
Midway through the period, a Penguins power play failed to score – as it had in all but one of its opportunities in this series – but was moving the puck much better and getting chances around the net. A few minutes after that, Orpik clanked a big shot off the inside post, about as close a chance as Pittsburgh was going to get.
With the shots 11-4 and the Penguins having by far the better of the zone time and chances all period long, but failing to convert, it felt like a matter of time before the Lightning would come the other way. And, with 3:03 remaining in the opening frame, they did, with Gagne getting his first goal of the series.
Less than a minute later, the Bolts’ sleeping giant – 21-year-old Steven Stamkos, held quiet so far in his first playoffs – woke up, finding Steve Downie’s rebound right in front of the net and backhanding it past Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. On just its seventh shot of the game, Tampa Bay had jumped out to a 2-0 lead.
“You could see their team growing confident,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “After the second one, they had control of that game, and we were reacting to that control.”
Things didn’t get any better for the Penguins. A power play to start the second ended with the penalized player, Vinny Lecavalier, coming on, going straight to the net, and taking Stamkos’ pass from behind the goal to give the Lightning a 3-0 lead. A few minutes later, Gagne picked up Dominic Moore’s rebound at a wide open corner of the net and made it 4-0.
“We started the game pretty well; we had a lot of chances,” said Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek. “We were the better team for 15 minutes and, all of a sudden, they came out, scored that first goal and got the second one right away. After that, it kind of got into our heads, and we didn’t get back to our game at all.”
Fleury, fighting the puck and getting little help from the team in front of him, was pulled in favor of backup Brent Johnson. It didn’t matter, as Pittsburgh’s Mike Rupp went off for boarding, the Bolts’ dangerous power play went to work, and Stamkos netted his second of the game.
“He’s battled extremely hard. The fact that he scored goals today was just the result of him going to the net a lot more often instead of trying to wait for an outside shot,” said Lightning head coach Guy Boucher. “He was great defensively, he had poise with the puck, he played hard on the boards, and I could put him out there at any moment to take a faceoff. That’s what we’re going to ask of him, now and in the future.”
Even with the 5-0 lead, the Bolts didn’t let their foot off the gas.
Early in the third, Pittsburgh’s Alex Kovalev hauled down Moore and Tampa’s Pavel Kubina picked up his first of the playoffs on the power play. Shortly after that, Johnson was called for roughing and Kubina was in front of the net to deflect in his second.
“We have not done a good job in enough areas to keep them away from the dangerous aspects of what they do [on the power play],” Bylsma said. “You’ve got to get them credit – their entries and the way they recovered pucks and set up their power play were very dangerous tonight. That’s a big part of this series, our penalty kill and their power play, and it’s something we knew going in. It’s where a lot of their skill players have gotten momentum in this series.”
By the time Rupp and Chris Conner scored to break Roloson’s shutout and make the score 7-2 – Moore would eventually make it eight on another power play, where Tampa went 4-for-7 on the afternoon – the Penguins couldn’t hope for much more than salvaging some pride.
And, they hope, setting a different tone for Monday’s Game 6 at Tampa Bay. Over the past few years, Fleury and the Penguins are 3-7 in their first opportunity to close out a playoff series, 5-1 in their second.
“I think it speaks to the difficulty of winning [the fourth game], the mentality of the team you’re playing and the desperation they’re bringing,” said Bylsma. “It’s not something we’ve had a lot of success at. But it’s difficult to put a team out; they’re playing for their last breath and they’re bringing that focus and mentality, and I think you saw that in how they went in and around our net today and got to loose pucks and scored some goals.”
Boucher’s club, meanwhile, will head back to the St. Pete Times Forum hoping to push the series to a decisive seventh game by winning its first game at home. After neither team managed to win in the other’s building during the regular season, through five games of this series, home ice has proven to be an advantage only once, for Pittsburgh in Game 1. That’s on trend with the rest of this year’s playoffs so far, where road teams have won more than 60 percent of the time.
“Last time we came [to Pittsburgh], we felt it. We made the mistake of being a young group of individuals who don’t really know how to manage the playoffs yet, of being happy to win the game,” Boucher said. “Right now, we’re not happy to win the game; we just want to move on and get ready for the next game. Just change our attitude and, hopefully, it’ll change the result.”
That’s something the Lightning can see happening already, as its young players now have five postseason contests under their belts.
“The games that we’ve played up to now are all experience that a lot of our guys didn’t have. It’s all learning and maturing,” Boucher said. “We said to beat Pittsburgh, which has more experience than us, we’ll have to learn real fast. And we’re learning.”