Game 3 in a playoff series can be pivotal, an opportunity for a team to shift the momentum in its favor. And, although the Pittsburgh Penguins hadn’t won in either of their two regular-season visits to Tampa Bay, they had shown a knack for coming through at this key point of a series, entering Monday’s contest with a 9-1 record in Game 3’s since 2008.
Make that 10-1.
The Penguins went into the din of the St. Pete Times Forum, where a crowd of 20,545 greeted Tampa’s first playoff game in four years with rally drums and vuvuzelas, and – in a 45-second span early in the first period – found a way to silence them. Unlike Games 1 and 2, where the Lightning put the Penguins on their heels early, this time it was Pittsburgh taking it to the Bolts with early goals from Max Talbot and Arron Asham that came partly from the enthusiasm of the Lightning’s Steve Downie and Victor Hedman to take their man at the expense of making the play.
“It’s an emotional game, you’re coming back to your rink, and we’d talked a lot about making sure that we kept our structure,” said Lightning head coach Guy Boucher. “Obviously, when that big hit [Downie on Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy] happened, it had everybody’s eyes on it. They came our way and scored, and I think they scored out of nothing. That’s something we should’ve been able to prevent easily.”
But the Penguins also made their opportunities by coming out with an aggressive forecheck in the opening frame – chipping pucks, playing physical and wearing down the Lightning.
“They came out hard on us in the first two [games] and we wanted to do that in the first game at home for them,” said Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy. “I thought we did well getting pucks deep and putting shots on net.”
Pittsburgh created opportunities for the Lightning, too, which wasn’t part of its game plan. Tampa’s power play has been predictably dangerous in this series, and not even the Penguins’ league-best penalty kill has succeeded in shutting it down. Monday, four Lightning chances with the man-advantage led to two power play goals, both by sniper Martin St. Louis. One closed the gap to 2-1 late in the first; the other tied the game two minutes into the third.
“We’ve given up four [power play] goals [in the series],” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “There’s some things we like about what we’ve done, but they’ve done a good job of getting the puck to the net, creating second chance opportunities and scoring goals. And there are some areas where we’ve got to do a better job, with clears and puck battles and getting them down the ice. We haven’t been great, and a couple of those have turned into second chances for them.”
As they had twice before in the series, however – once in the third period of Game 1, once in the opening period of this game – the Penguins responded to a goal with a big shift that produced another. This time, they took the wind out of St. Louis’ power play goal celebration when Kennedy cashed in just 31 seconds later, making the score 3-2 with what held up as the game-winning goal.
“TK could’ve had a couple more; he had some good chances tonight,” Bylsma said. “He’s added an offensive punch when we’ve needed it. You’ve got to have guys who can score goals, and Arron Asham’s got two in the playoffs, and TK, like he’s been doing for us for the past 30 games, steps up and gets the game winner.”
“We know when they’re ahead in the third period, they’re tough to beat. We also know they’re 29th in the league in comebacks in the third so, obviously, the team that has the lead going into the third gets some sort of advantage,” Boucher said. “But, as you saw, we came back. Problem is, we allowed that goal.
“It’s a disappointing goal because it’s a faceoff [play] that we know they’re doing. The players are extremely aware, we saw it on video, we talked about it, and two players were a little late in doing what they were supposed to do. After scoring like that, getting some momentum, getting scored on something we were supposed to be aware of was a little disappointing.”
The Penguins expected a rebound game from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury after their 5-1 loss in Game 2 – since 2008, Fleury has gone 12-4 after a loss. They also got a rebound game from their blueline in front of him. Defensemen Kris Letang and Zbynek Michalek joined Kennedy in recording five shots apiece. Letang also led the team in hits, while Michalek was among the leaders in blocked shots. Letang earned the game’s No. 1 star for his efforts.
“I thought we had plenty of chances to score at least one more goal tonight, and I thought their defensemen played great,” Boucher said. “That’s their strength, we’re expecting that, so it’s nothing new.”
“In the third, under some strong pressure and with some action around the cage, they did a great job of being strong and making good, hard plays to get us out of the defensive zone,” Bylsma said. “Kris Letang, tonight you see him add some offense mostly because he’s doing the right thing, moving the puck and making quick transitions. He’s been doing that for us a lot. And he’s a great defender, and he did that tonight as well.”
The Penguins lost the special teams battle, giving up those two power play goals and going 0-for-2 on the man advantage themselves, extending their series-long futility on the power play to 0-for-15. Still, they held on to win the game, giving themselves a 2-1 series led and an opportunity to take a stranglehold on the series in Game 4. At the very least, with the win, Pittsburgh has regained its home-ice advantage.
For the Lightning, Game 4 Wednesday will come down to finding goals at even strength, capitalizing on the Penguins’ mistakes and, simply, executing.
“If you don’t manage your emotions, you’re cooked; if you don’t manage your X’s and O’s, you’re cooked,” Boucher said. “Playoffs are about everything, and it’s whoever’s going to pay attention to the most details and execute.
“Right now, it’s not a question of getting upset. It’s a question of getting things right.”