TAMPA – The beauty and the pomp and circumstance of the raising of the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Champions banner was literally the highlight the evening as the Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into Amalie Arena and were dominant in a 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Opening Night of the 2021-22 season.
Let’s don’t get too entrenched with the result.
This was the first of 82 regular season games that is going to likely finish in another long Stanley Cup run, but it serves notice that the Lightning are restructuring their line combinations which in turn allowed the Penguins to give the Lightning a major wake up call.
“You can Monday morning quarterback this whole thing,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “In the end, they beat us to every puck, they worked harder than us and they were better than us in every facet of the game. If it wasn’t for our goalie, it would have been way worse.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 29-of-32 shots in the loss as the Lightning trailed 3-0 before coach Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy with around six minutes left as the Penguins scored three empty net goals wrapped around goals by Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn.
“The goal is to win the hockey game and we had nothing going the entire night,” noted Cooper. “We finally got something going when we were pulling Vasy and sometimes you don’t get a chance to work on that a whole ton.”
Even as the Lightning struggled on both ends of the ice, two of those empty-netters were a definition of Tampa Bay’s fate.
“We had an unfortunate bounce through us in the first one and then that seeing-eye single that rolled down the ice – we had nothing going on and I probably should have pulled him earlier,” said Cooper.
Steven Stamkos added an assist on each Tampa Bay goal while Victor Hedman assisted Cirelli’s marker as well as he now has eight points in the last six games against Pittsburgh. Cirelli later assisted Killorn’s goal.
“We just got outworked,” explained Stamkos. “Guys were excited to play this game and for some reason, it was a dud. You have to give Pittsburgh credit. They had a depleted line up and had some key players missing tonight, but they outworked us.”
The Lightning were outshot, 35-28, and Pittsburgh blocked 15 shots.
Cooper was concerned about why the compete level wasn’t there as the Lightning had no aggression on either end of the ice all evening.
“They came here to win a hockey game,” said Cooper. “We came here and watched the banner raising and watched a team want to win a hockey game. We did a lot of watching tonight.”
Thursday night’s loss ended a seven-year streak of Game 1 wins for Tampa Bay and the Lightning had won eight home openers in a row before Tuesday night’s loss.
“One thing about this league – the start means a ton,” noted Cooper. “When’s the last time we have lost the first game? It’s been seven straight. We have notoriously got off to a good start and that’s what you need to do if you want to make the playoffs. Tonight was a step backwards I am not going to guarantee the result, but I am going to expect a helluva different effort.”
Vasilevskiy had an outstanding first period where he had three of his patented stops in front of the net which were reminiscent of his 2020-21 season where he had won the Conn Smythe Trophy – some three months earlier as the Lightning finished their quest for back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in their win over Montreal in five games.
That wouldn’t carry very far in the second period as he was caught out the net just 12 seconds into the second period when he sh aded toward Pittsburgh’s Jeff Carter along the board and then Carter pushed the puck back to Danton Heinen who was at the left side of Vasilevskiy for a 1-0 Penguins lead.
Tampa Bay incurred another defensive breakdown at 4:11 when center former Lightning player Brian Boyle, who was just told yesterday that he made the team, caught a pass in the middle from Sam Lafferty and pushed in past Vasilevskiy in the 5-hole for a 2-0 lead.
Dominik Simon gave Pittsburgh it’s breathing room on a goal at 11:32 into the third as the Penguins pushed to a 3-0 advantage.