Pens Get Back on Top in Tampa

Tonight’s game was crucial for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a brutal 5-1 loss on Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning that tied their first-round playoff series 1-1, the Pens needed to reclaim not only the series lead but their pride as well.

They faced an equally hungry Tampa team, who answered the Pens’ physical game and fought hard on both ends of the ice. Despite a constant stream of adversity, Pittsburgh managed to prevail 3-2.

At 5:46 into the first period, center Max Talbot scored with an assist from defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Lightning winger Steve Downie had left his feet in a nasty and possibly suspension-earning hit on Lovejoy behind the Pens’ net, but Talbot’s goal cancelled the delayed penalty.

“Under (Tampa’s) heavy-pressure forecheck, (Lovejoy) makes the play around the wall, takes a big hit, and I’m just happy to see his name on that goal,” Head Coach Dan Bylsma told the press, adding, “I’m sure it’s a hit they’ll take a look at.”

Only 45 seconds later, winger Arron Asham scored his second goal of the post-season, assisted by forward Mike Rupp and defenseman Kris Letang. Rupp was able to get the puck to Asham when Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman failed to connect on a hit and threw himself off track. Interestingly, then, both of these goals were a result of overaggressive actions on the part of the Bolts.

“We were aware of…Tampa Bay being a team that starts hard, comes out hard, and to be able to get the lead, get the two goals I think was big for us, big for our mindset,” said Bylsma.

“The Lightning is a really good team when they get the lead first,” Talbot said to the media, “so it was important for us to play with a tempo and go at them hard to start the game, which we did.”

It was a great feeling for the team, a pair of goals that would hopefully dictate their dominance for the rest of the game. Bolt Martin St. Louis, however, was able to score a power play goal when a questionable call was made against Pens’ forward Alex Kovalev. Despite being checked into Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson, he was sent to the box for interference. Whether this was the proper call or not, the Pens need to work on thwarting Tampa’s power play and particularly St. Louis, who scored again on the man advantage in the third period, tying the game 2-2.

Fortunately for the Pens, forward Tyler Kennedy was able to answer that goal with help from Letang and defenseman Brooks Orpik.

“There was probably a lot of room for us to get a little rattled there,” Orpik said to the press, describing the moment the game was brought to a tie. “I thought we did a good job keeping our composure on the bench, and obviously that goal was huge.”

The fact that both Lightning goals were on the power play is a bad sign for the Pens. They need to better control Tampa’s PP and be mindful of penalties they take. Tonight they took four while the Bolts only took two.

“There’s some thing that we like about what we’ve done, but they’ve done a good job of getting pucks into the net, to the net, and creating those second chance opportunities and scoring goals,” said Bylsma, “There’s some areas we need to do a better job in, in terms of clears and puck battles and getting down the ice. We haven’t been great, and a couple of those have turned into chances and second chances for them. They’re making the power play happen with a lot of action around the net.”

Additionally, there is speculation that winger Chris Kunitz will face suspension for an elbow to the head of Simon Gagne in the first, though at the time he only served two minutes for elbowing.

This problem is magnified by the Pens’ glaring inability to capitalize on their own chances. Their power play is now 0-15 in this series, a major issue that will only halt their playoff progression if it does not get turned around.

“Special teams obviously haven’t gone our way,” said Orpik. “So that’s something we just have to learn from.”

Overall, however, the Pens played well, and certain players stood out. Asham has emerged as a playoff scorer, and Letang’s focus and intensity have mounted. Chris Conner, Kennedy and Talbot were offensive forces, and Zbynek Michalek was an impenetrable defensive barrier. The Pens are still waiting on a score sheet contribution from forward James Neal, who creates chances but has failed to hit the net in regulation since he was acquired from the Dallas Stars before the trade deadline.

The team is aware of what needs work, and they will certainly refocus their efforts so they do not have to let go of the series lead.

“(Tonight’s win) shows that we’re a good team by hanging onto the lead,” Kennedy told the press. “They’re a good team. But this one is behind us and we have to focus on the next one.”

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