By now, no one should be surprised that the Pittsburgh Penguins know how to get the job done on the road in the playoffs.
James Neal scored 3:38 into the second overtime Wednesday night, giving the Penguins a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the first-round playoff series.
Pittsburgh improved to 7-2 in its past nine postseason road games dating to Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final, including a pair of one-goal wins this week at the St. Pete Times – where Tampa Bay was 2-0 against the Penguins during the regular season.
Neal, playing in his fourth career NHL postseason game, couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first goal.
”Given the situation … it was a big one. And definitely a fun way to get one,” Neal said, adding that he’s often watched overtime playoff games on television and dreamed of scoring a winner.
”You think about it in between periods and watching those late ones go deep into the night, and here you’re thinking I wish I could be out there … and get that shot and win that one for your team,” said Neal, who got his first career postseason point when he assisted on a goal in Pittsburgh’s 3-0 win in Game 1. ”I was fortunate enough, tonight was that night.”
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots — nine of them in the extra periods — to help the Penguins take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference matchup. Game 5 is Saturday in Pittsburgh, with the Lightning needing a victory to keep their turnaround season alive.
Neal gathered a loose puck along the boards and sent the winning shot from a tough angle past goalie Dwayne Roloson, who had 50 saves for Tampa Bay.
”As long as you keep shooting, one is going to find it’s way into the back of the net,” Neal said. ”I didn’t have the angle, but it managed to find its way in.”
Lightning coach Guy Boucher said his team will head to Pittsburgh with intentions of bringing the series back to Tampa for Game 6 on Monday.
”I’m one of those guys who believes it’s possible until there is absolutely no time left,” Boucher said. ”I’ve seen it done before, done it before. … Series are never about momentum. They’re about desperation.”
Martin St. Louis scored late in the second period and Sean Bergenheim added his first career playoff with less than 4 minutes remaining in regulation as Tampa Bay rallied from a 2-0 deficit for the second straight game against Fleury.
But unlike Game 3, when Pittsburgh’s Tyler Kennedy countered with the winning goal just 31 seconds after the Lightning tied it, Tampa Bay took this one into overtime.
The Lightning failed to take advantage of a power-play opportunity in the first OT, and got off only one shot in the second extra period before Neal ended it with his first goal of the playoffs.
Kennedy and Arron Asham scored, building Pittsburgh’s 2-0 lead in the first 23 minutes of the game. Even after St. Louis scored with 2:46 left in the second period, it looked as if the Penguins might be able to hold on when they killed Tampa Bay’s last two power-play opportunities of regulation to cling to a 2-1 lead.
But Bergenheim’s shot trickled through with 3:17 left in the third to even it, even though the Lightning had been outplayed up to that point.
Each team played without a player suspended one game by the NHL because of hits during Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory in Game 3 on Monday night.
Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie was banned for leaving his feet and launching himself to level Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy, and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz was disciplined for elbowing Lightning forward Simon Gagne in the head.
Pittsburgh was 0 for 15 on power-play opportunities — and just 6 for 81 in its previous 26 games overall — before Kennedy’s shot from the left circle got past Roloson for a 1-0 lead. Asham’s third goal of the series made it 2-0 less than three minutes into the second period.
The Lightning played much of the night without the desperation of a team about to drop consecutive games at home and move to the brink of elimination from the postseason. The sellout crowd of 20,326 — with the exception of a generous number of Penguins fans — had little to cheer until Vincent Lecavalier led St. Louis with a pass that the Tampa Bay star turned into a momentum-changing goal.
St. Louis raced up the right wing, cut in front of Lovejoy just as the defenseman dove to try to get his stick on the puck and beat Fleury to the far post to give the Lightning a chance.
Until Bergenheim tied it, St. Louis had scored all of Tampa Bay’s goals in Games 3 and 4. Meanwhile, teammate Steven Stamkos is still without a goal in the playoffs after scoring 45 — second-most in the NHL — during the regular season.
”We’re fighting for this team’s life. We came back again,” Boucher said. ”These guys are fighting. They’re up against a goaltender who is playing great and against a team who is playing great. It’s tough to get through. We are out there pushing and grinding it out.”
NOTES: The Penguins outshot the Lightning 40-22 in regulation and also held Tampa Bay to 0 for 3 on the power play. … Penguins C Sidney Crosby, out since early January with a concussion, skated with the team in practice for the second consecutive game. … Stamkos was one of the few Lightning players not to take part in an optional morning practice. Stamkos said he is fine physically. … Tampa Bay’s Steve Yzerman is a finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, along with Vancouver’s Mike Gillis and Nashville’s David Poile. The former Detroit Red Wings star is in his first season with the Lightning, which is in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.