The Pittsburgh Penguins knew their last four attempts to clinch a playoff series at home had come up short. And, going into Saturday’s Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they said all the right things about how they were prepared to buck that trend.
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“I think we should look at it the same way they do — as a desperation situation,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We don’t want to go back to Tampa Bay; we don’t want to give them any life. Especially if you can score early — even if you don’t score first, if you take over the game early — you can make them doubt themselves.”
Pittsburgh certainly held to that script early on.
A minute and a half into the game, Tyler Kennedy blasted a shot at the net, the rebound coming out to Chris Kunitz on the other side. Kunitz apparently beat Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson, but Tampa’s Simon Gagne cleared the puck before it could cross the line. Later in the period, Orpik clanked a big shot off the inside post.
So, as promised, Orpik and the Penguins made their presence known early, even building a quick 11-4 edge in shots on goal.
But it mattered little, because the Lightning scored the first seven goals of the game en route to an 8-2 victory. The win enabled the Lightning to close their series deficit to 3-2 entering Monday’s Game 6 at Tampa, Fla.
Despite the Penguins’ early offensive dominance, the Lightning scored first, with 3:03 remaining in the first period, with Simon Gagne getting his first goal of the series.
Less than a minute later, the Bolts’ 21-year-old Steven Stamkos, held quiet so far in his first playoffs, rebounded Steve Downie’s miss in front of the net and backhanded it past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. On only its seventh shot of the game, Tampa Bay had jumped to a 2-0 lead.
“You could see their team growing confident,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “After the second one, they had control of that game, and we were reacting to that control.”
Things didn’t get any better for the Penguins. A power play to start the second period ended with the penalized player, Vincent Lecavalier, returning to the ice, heading straight to the net, taking Stamkos’ pass from behind the goal and scoring to give the Lightning a 3-0 lead. A few minutes later, Gagne picked up Dominic Moore’s rebound at a wide-open corner of the net to make it 4-0.
“We started the game pretty well; we had a lot of chances,” Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. “We were the better team for 15 minutes, and all of a sudden, they came out, scored that first goal and got the second one right away. After that, it kind of got into our heads, and we didn’t get back to our game at all.”
Fleury, fighting the puck and getting little help from the team in front of him, was pulled in favor of backup Brent Johnson. It didn’t matter, as Pittsburgh’s Mike Rupp went off for boarding, the Bolts’ dangerous power play went to work and Stamkos netted his second goal, at the seven-minute mark.
“He’s battled extremely hard. The fact that he scored goals today was just the result of him going to the net a lot more often instead of trying to wait for an outside shot,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “He was great defensively, he had poise with the puck, he played hard on the boards, and I could put him out there at any moment to take a faceoff. That’s what we’re going to ask of him, now and in the future.”
Even with the 5-0 lead, the Bolts didn’t let their foot off the gas.
Early in the third, after Pittsburgh’s Alex Kovalev hauled down Moore and was sent to the penalty box, Tampa’s Pavel Kubina scored his first goal of the playoffs. Shortly after that, Johnson was called for roughing and Kubina, taking advantage of the man advantage, was in front of the net to deflect in a shot for his second straight goal of the game.
“We have not done a good job in enough areas to keep them away from the dangerous aspects of what they do (on the power play),” Bylsma said. “You’ve got to get them credit — their entries and the way they recovered pucks and set up their power play were very dangerous tonight. That’s a big part of this series, our penalty kill and their power play, and it’s something we knew going in. It’s where a lot of their skill players have gotten momentum in this series.”
Rupp and Chris Conner scored about two minutes apart in the third to end Roloson’s shutout and cut the deficit to 7-2, but Moore eventually scored the game’s final goal on, fittingly enough, a power play. The Lightning ended up going 4-for-7 on power-play opportunities.
Now the Penguins have to hope history remains on their side. In the past few years, Fleury and the Penguins have gone 3-7 in their first opportunity to close out a playoff series, 5-1 in their second. This time, that would be Monday’s Game 6.
“I think it speaks to the difficulty of winning (the fourth game), the mentality of the team you’re playing and the desperation they’re bringing,” Bylsma said. “It’s not something we’ve had a lot of success at. But it’s difficult to put a team out; they’re playing for their last breath and they’re bringing that focus and mentality, and I think you saw that in how they went in and around our net today and got to loose pucks and scored some goals.”
Boucher’s club, meanwhile, will head back to the St. Pete Times Forum hoping to push the series to a decisive seventh game by winning its first game at home. Neither team managed to win in the other’s building during the regular season, and through five games of this series, home ice has proved to be an advantage only once, when Pittsburgh won Game 1. That’s on trend with this year’s playoffs so far: Road teams have won more than 60 percent of the time.
“Last time we came (to Pittsburgh), we felt it. We made the mistake of being a young group of individuals who don’t really know how to manage the playoffs yet, of being happy to win the game,” Boucher said. “Right now, we’re not happy to win the game. We just want to move on and get ready for the next game. Just change our attitude and, hopefully, it’ll change the result.”
That’s something the Lightning can see happening already, as their young players now have five postseason contests under their belts.
“The games that we’ve played up to now are all experience that a lot of our guys didn’t have. It’s all learning and maturing,” Boucher said. “We said to beat Pittsburgh, which has more experience than us, we’ll have to learn real fast. And we’re learning.”