The Pittsburgh Penguins outshot and out-chanced the Tampa Bay Lightning in nearly every game of their first-round playoff series. They did it again in Wednesday’s winner-take-all Game 7, racking up 36 shots to Tampa Bay’s 23.
But the Lightning kept many of those chances from posing too much of a threat. They blocked 22 additional Penguins attempts and held them to the outside for 21 missed shots. Their penalty kill continued to frustrate Pittsburgh’s powerless power play, which went 0-for-5 on the night and 1-for-35 in the series.
And, when the teams lined up for postgame handshakes, it was the Lightning who, with a 1-0 win, had earned the right to move on and face the Washington Capitals in Round 2. The victory capped an extraordinary comeback for the Bolts, who rallied from a 3-1 series deficit. It was the first time the Penguins had lost three straight in more than 140 consecutive games.
“At the end of the day, a power-play goal would’ve been a huge factor for us in the beginning of the game, or something that could’ve tied it late in the game,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We tried to make some adjustments, we didn’t cash in on those things, and that’s obviously a big part of this game we didn’t get.
“If we get a bounce, a tip, one that doesn’t go wide, maybe (it’s) the difference in the game.”
The Penguins didn’t get those things primarily because the Lightning did an outstanding job of shutting them down.
“We worked hard, emptied our tanks and threw everything to the net, but it’s tough to get many chances against that team,” said Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who had five of his shot attempts blocked on the night. “They trap, they didn’t let us enter their zone with any speed, and their goalie played well.”
That would be 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson who, with the win, improved to an impressive 6-0 when facing elimination. His Penguins counterpart, 26-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury, also played a strong Game 7, with at least two saves that could have been game-changers: a skate stop on Simon Gagne in the final seconds of the first that was reminiscent of Fleury’s Stanley Cup-winning heroics in 2009, and a sprawling glove save on Pavel Kubina midway through the second to keep the Penguins within a goal.
Fleury’s only flaw came on a shot he didn’t see coming early in the second, when Tampa Bay’s Dominic Moore distracted the Penguins behind the net, then caught them off guard by getting the puck out front for a waiting Sean Bergenheim.
“I’m proud of this team and the way we battled,” Bylsma said. “We did a lot of the things we needed to do to get chances, we had pucks in and around the net and Dwayne Roloson threw a goose egg. And our goaltender stopped everything he could see tonight; an absolutely outstanding game for Marc-Andre. He didn’t stop the one he couldn’t see on a misdirection play.”
That goal, however, was all the Lightning needed. The Penguins were the only team in the NHL this year that never staged a comeback when trailing after two periods, and Game 7 would prove no different, even when Pittsburgh got a golden opportunity with a late-game power play and pulled Fleury for a 6-on-4 advantage. Penguins sniper Alex Kovalev was notably on the bench for that chance, as he had been late in the game.
“I put the guys on the ice that were going to be in certain spots and were battling and gave us the best chance to cash in on an opportunity,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins’ inability to finish off the Lightning in Games 5 and 6 proved fatal as the young Bolts gained confidence as the series wore on, displaying calmness and poise even as the stakes got higher.
“We had to learn fast,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “We had a lot of guys that had no experience in the playoffs, basically half our team. And we were playing an experienced team that knows how to win, that battles very hard, that’s got a terrific goaltender and plays a solid and structured defense. We knew it was going to be extremely hard, and our young guys were nervous to start.
“Basically they learned to execute under pressure and, as the series went on, we got stronger and stronger in terms of confidence and less nervous in our zone. And [even] trailing 3-1, after the second game we lost at home in overtime, we felt that our team had gotten a lot better, a lot stronger mentally. And it showed in the games after that.”
The Lightning got contributions not just from its stars — Martin St. Louis led the way with eight points in the series — but from lesser-known players such as Steve Downie with seven points, Eric Brewer and Teddy Purcell with five, and Bergenheim and Moore with four. The Penguins, meanwhile, struggled mightily on offense, with no player getting more than four points and the fourth line — Arron Asham, Mike Rupp and Craig Adams — generating the best of Pittsburgh’s chances.
That’s why many will point to the absence of Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the difference-maker in this series, and Pittsburgh certainly missed the presence, and point production, of its two biggest stars. But Bylsma preferred to define the season instead based on what his roster accomplished in the face of adversity that, at one point, saw the Penguins missing the equivalent of three forward lines and one defensive pairing.
“It certainly happened, but I think that would be a significant error on the history books to talk about this year in that regard,” Bylsma said. “With this team and the way they played, and the way they continued to work and find ways to be successful given the situations we were in, the work ethic and the passion with which they played, and the ability to continue to be a good team, that’s what I think this year was about. That’s what this team proved and showed all year long.”
The Penguins gave the game puck to the Lightning, who plan to give it to Wayne Fleming, the club’s assistant coach who recently underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor.
“One of the reasons we won this series was because of our penalty kill, and Wayne was taking care of it all year, so he deserves a lot of the credit,” Boucher said.
And, for the second time in as many years, the Penguins could only tip their hats to a lower-seeded team that came back to beat them on home ice in a Game 7 heartbreaker.
“Congratulations to them; they did an outstanding job,” Bylsma said. “I don’t like losing the game, don’t like being in this situation, but hats off to them. They did a great job and they came up with the win.”