With a slight edge in recent playoff experience and a big one with home ice — where the host team won every game during the season series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning — the Penguins didn’t expect to come out and be dominated in the first-ever playoff period at CONSOL Energy Center on Wednesday.
But that’s exactly how it played out, with the Bolts racking up 14 shots to the Penguins’ 10 and Pittsburgh lucky to get that — and even more fortunate to get out of the frame with no score, largely thanks to the excellence of netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Fleury was outstanding; there’s no question about it,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “I just saw some of the replays and still can’t believe he made some of those saves."
“We were battling a little bit of nerves, but Flower kept us in it,” winger Arron Asham said. “He’s been doing it all year for us.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma took the first intermission as an opportunity to settle his troops. And, from the start of the second period, the Penguins looked like a different team. They came out firing — not only outshooting the Bolts in terms of shots on goal, 18-7, but attempting a total of 34 shots in the frame. Beginning with an early power play 3:13 into the second, Pittsburgh started to throw pucks at the net regardless of the shooter’s angle or distance. Rebounds went right back to the net without the Penguins pausing to overthink.
“In the second period, our power play really changed the momentum. It got momentum going our way and [got] the building going,” Bylsma said. “They had a lot of zone time, they were hunting pucks, had a lot of really good looks at the net. And I thought that was a building point for our team.”
Although the Penguins still hadn’t put anything past Tampa Bay netminder Dwayne Roloson by the end of the second period, the pressure in the offensive zone forced the Bolts into penalties that, by the end of the game, would end up giving the Penguins a 6-to-1 power-play advantage.
“That killed us,” Boucher said. “We had momentum, but we lost it. You can’t expect to score goals if you’re in the penalty box and, in the second period, a lot of my offensive players didn’t get on the ice too much because we were [killing penalties].”
And the Penguins were confident that, with the way they had started to play, it was only a matter of time before their hard work would pay off.
“I thought we controlled most of the second,” Asham said. “And the second set us up for the third.”
“We just tried not to give them anything and be patient, and the chances are eventually going to be there,” Penguins winger Alex Kovalev said. “Both goalies played really well and [the Lightning] blocked a lot of shots; it was really hard to get pucks to the net. But we kept skating with them, working hard, and things started to open up in the third.”
Six minutes into the final period, Pittsburgh finally got its break when Kovalev, brought back for a second stint with the team in February, got hauled down in front of the net by Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina. When Kovalev realized no penalty call was coming, he promptly got up, took a pass from fellow trade-deadline acquisition James Neal, and fired a close-range one-timer past Roloson’s glove.
“I got pretty badly slashed on the inside of the knee and just went down,” Kovalev said. “I don’t know if the referee saw it, but it doesn’t matter. I tried to get up; the puck was still in the zone, I was just trying to stay in front of the net and be patient.
“You can’t ask for a better ending. Even if a goal wouldn’t happen, you’ve got to get up and sometimes try to make you mad and, hopefully, you’ll get one on the next chance.”
“It was a great play by [defenseman] Paul Martin,” Neal said. “A little deke there back between his legs and, when I got it, Kovy was open.”
The standing-room-only sellout crowd of 18,390 was still celebrating that goal when Asham made a pretty individual play to make it 2-0.
“It was just basically faking a slapshot,” Asham said. “I got a step on the D-man and Roly gave me nothing, so I held onto it, tried to do a wraparound, got pokechecked and it came right back to me. It was basically an open net.”
In a span of just 18 seconds, a 0-0 game had shifted dramatically in favor of the Penguins.
“Obviously those two quick ones hurt,” Boucher said. “But it’s before that that we missed those major quality chances.”
Winger Chris Kunitz added a late empty-netter to pad the final score to 3-0, and Fleury ended up with 32 saves for his fifth career playoff shutout. The crowd rewarded the goaltender with chants of “MVP.”
“That was fun,” Fleury said. “All game long, right from the start, the fans were really loud. We fought all season to get home-ice advantage, and they showed tonight why it’s so important.”
Even with a 1-0 series lead, the Penguins know that, with the Lightning’s highly skilled forwards and ability to play a stifling defense, the games are only going to get tougher.
“I try not to think too much about [the pressure],” Fleury said. “Just stop the next puck and try to give the team a chance.”
“It’s one game; we’re got to put this one behind us,” Asham said. “They’ve got a great hockey team over there and everyone in here knows it. It’s going to be a long series, we know that, and we’ve got to stick to our game plan.”
And the Lightning don’t expect much different.
“Before the series started, I said I was expecting something that goes seven [games] and a third overtime,” Boucher said. “It’s going to be tight.”