On Thursday night, it looked like things couldn’t get much worse for the Tampa Bay Lightning after dropping a 5-1 decision to the Vancouver Canucks on home ice. Following a visit from Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lightning’s slump has gone from bad to worse with little sign of things getting any better.
The Lightning jumped out to a 3-1 second period lead, and then watched that lead evaporate into a pile of Penguins power play goals in a 4-3 loss at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay (14-13-2) is now 1-6-1 in their last eight games, while the Penguins (18-7-3) extended their winning streak to five games. Pittsburgh’s slumping power play came to life, converting three out of five chances. Those three power play goals all came on Pittsburgh’s final three man-advantage opportunities of the game. Crosby and Malkin each had two goals each for the Pens, while Jonathan Drouin tallied two for the Bolts and Valtteri Filppula scored the other Lightning goal. Crosby now leads the NHL with 20 goals. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 33 out of 37 sots while Matt Murray got the win for Pittsburgh, making 20 saves.
The opening period looked like a replay of much of last season’s Eastern Conference Final, as the Penguins outshot the Lightning 15-8 and dominated play for much of the frame. Vasilevskiy was busy early and often, as he had to make a save off a shot by Malkin just a few minutes into the game on a partial 2-on-1. The Penguins would pick up their first power play chance at the 4:43 mark when Nikita Nesterov was called for holding, but the Bolts’ penalty killers were up to the task in keeping Pittsburgh off the scoreboard. Brayden Point would power the Bolts to one of their best scoring chances of the period, leading Tampa Bay on a 3-on-1, but his choice to pass it was a poor one, as the pass was broken up. The first period also saw Nikita Kucherov get into his second fight in two weeks, dropping the gloves with Pittsburgh’s Trevor Daley.
Crosby tallied his first goal of the night at the 12:03 mark, putting the Pens up 1-0. Brian Dumoulin’s shot from the point was stopped by Vasilevskiy, but there was a rebound that Crosby scooped up in front despite having Cedric Paquette all over him. Vasilevskiy was out of position, and Crosby was able to sweep it into the net. Tampa Bay challenged the play for goalie interference, but the decision didn’t work out and the goal was upheld. It was very close, as Crosby appeared to brush up against Vasilevskiy, but it didn’t appear to be enough to prevent the Lightning goaltender from making the initial save.
Pittsburgh would go on to control play for the next several minutes, generating multiple quality scoring chances before Drouin was clipped by a high stick from Malkin, drawing blood in the process and putting Malkin in the box for four minutes with 3:53 left in the period. This seemed to wake up the Lightning, as they had three shots on goal with the man advantage before Drouin got his revenge and beat Murray from the left circle to tie the game with 2:03 left in the period. Anton Stralman and Nikita Kucherov got the assists on Drouin’s fifth goal of the season.
The Penguins would get 1:14 of carryover power play time at the start of the second period thanks to a tripping call on Alex Killorn late in the first, but were unable to take advantage, as Crosby was called for slashing just over a minute into the middle stanza. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. But soon after the power play ended, Nesterov sprung Filppula with a pass that led to a 2-on-1 with Paquette. Filppula waited out Murray, and then decided to shoot it, beating the Penguins’ netminder for his sixth goal of the season at the 3:38 mark and putting Tampa Bay up 2-1.
The Lightning’s lead would increase to 3-1 when Jason Garrison lobbed the puck deep from his own zone, where it landed past Penguins defenseman Ian Cole. Drouin won the foot race for the puck, got nudged, lost his balance, regained it, and then deked to his backhand and beating Murray to send the Amalie Arena crowd into a frenzy while putting the Bolts up 3-1 with a highlight-reel quality tally. Garrison and Vlad Namestnikov got the assists on the goal. The Penguins would turn up the pressure and begin to create more chances, leading to a power play chance with 4:08 left when Andrej Sustr was whistled for holding. Malkin would complete an excellent passing sequence by the Penguins on the power play, as Phil Kessel fed him with a centering pass from the corner, which he promptly one-timed past Vasilevskiy with 2:35 left in the period, cutting the Lightning’s lead to 3-2 heading into the intermission. Letang got the secondary assist, as the Penguins held a 26-14 advantage in shots on goal at the intermission.
Going into the third period, it felt like the Lightning were hanging on by a thread and were bending, but not breaking. It didn’t take long for them to finally break when Nesterov was called for what looked like a questionable high-sticking penalty. On the ensuing power play, Crosby tied it up on a carbon copy of Malkin’s goal, with Kessel feeding Crosby in the slot, and Crosby burying the one-timer. Letang would get another assist, his third of the night, and the game was knotted up 3-3. At the 8:25 mark, Braydon Coburn was whistled for holding and the Penguins took the lead for good when Malkin fired a shot from the right circle that beat Vasilevskiy on the ensuing power play, putting them up 4-3 at the 8:36 mark. Daley and Kessel got the assists, with Kessel’s helper being his third of the night.
The Lightning would hardly threaten the rest of the game, with the glaring exception of Filppula missing a wide open net and shooting the puck into Murray’s glove with just over nine minutes left. Following a shot by Stralman that nearly squeaked through Murray’s pads, Nick Schultz was able to clear the puck out, but Murray was caught out of position and the puck ended up back on Filppula’s stick where he had a yawning net. With Murray only able to cover a fraction of the net, Filppula found a way to shoot it into Murray’s glove, and the game remained 4-3. The Lightning were unable to generate any consistent, sustained pressure in the Pittsburgh zone the rest of the way, even after pulling Vasilevskiy with under two minutes left and getting a power play chance with 15 seconds remaining. The question now is how long will this slump go on before any big changes start happening.
Tampa Bay will have three days off before embarking on a three-game Western Canadian road trip that begins in Calgary next Wednesday night, December 14, at 9:30 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Evgeni Malkin – Scored two power play goals, one that cut the Lightning lead to 3-2 late in the second period, and the other that turned out to be the game-winner at the 8:36 mark of the period. He now has 12 goals on the season.
2nd Star: Jonathan Drouin – Took a stick to the face that caused a big cut, but the blood just seemed to fuel him, as he scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season, including a highlight-reel quality goal that put the Lightning up 3-1.
3rd Star: Sidney Crosby – The NHL’s leading goal scorer now has 20 on the season, opening the scoring in the first period and tying the game early in the third.