On January 31, two of the leading contenders to win the Stanley Cup met in a matchup at the PPG Paints Arena. Over the last few years, the Lightning have come very close to winning it all in the playoffs, while the Penguins have won the ultimate prize twice.
This season appears to be a changing of the guard, but not without Pittsburgh having something to say about it.
Tampa Bay came out swinging in its first game back after the All-Star break, but Penguins goalie Matt Murray held off the early storm. Soon after, Pittsburgh took an unexpected lead, with Letang sending Garrett Wilson through to the offensive end. Wilson’s initial shot was saved, as was his follow-up wrap-around attempt, but Riley Sheahan popped up at the back post to tap the puck over the sprawling Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Just under five minutes later, a few exchanges between Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust to elude the only defenseman in their way resulted in Rust’s deke attempt in-front of the goal being tapped in by Kessel at the back post. Just 16 seconds later, the Penguins were up again. Jake Guentzel pressured Brayden Point behind the net, forcing the young center to throw the puck out, but it was Dominik Simon who picked it up. Holding off his marker very well, Simon weighted a pass across the crease for Sidney Crosby to tap past Vasilevskiy.
The second period saw Murray continue to shut the door on the Lightning, allowing Pittsburgh to take a four-goal lead. During a four-on-four, Evgeni Malkin sent Kessel up ice, with the sniper trudging into the offensive end. At the high slot, Kessel squared the puck to Kris Letang in the faceoff circle, who carried the puck to the faceoff dot before wristing it beyond Tampa Bay’s goalie.
The third period started with a bit more fire from the Tampa Bay Lightning, with captain Steven Stamkos taking it upon himself to inspire a comeback from his team. In what some would see as very foolish, Stamkos provoked and dropped the gloves to take on the 6’3’’, 195 lbs Russian center Evgeni Malkin. While it didn’t have an immediate impact on the score sheet, the Bolts did eventually find their way past Murray with 4:10 to play, with Alex Killorn’s perfectly weighted pass across the high slot finding J.T. Miller, whose release was simply too fast for the Penguins goaltender to attempt to save.
With just over two minutes to go, Tampa Bay scored on the powerplay, with Nikita Kucherov’s pass across the high slot finding Stamkos, who lasered the puck under Murray’s arm to make the score 4-2 – which is how the game would end.
Reaction and odds movement
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the loss didn’t make a single bit of difference to their standing in the league or odds to win the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup. At the 50-game mark, the Bolts still stand 13 points clear of their nearest Eastern foe and five clear in the overall standings of the Calgary Flames. Tampa Bay still sits at +400 to win the conference including the playoffs and +600 to win the Stanley Cup.
After the game, head coach Jon Cooper cited the team’s first preseason match, in which they were smashed 4-1 by the Carolina Hurricanes, saying that it’s hard to come back after a break. If this rink rust remains true for the Bolts through to the postseason, they’ll hope that each series goes to six or seven games to avoid a lengthy break, or risk losing each Game 1 to effectively nullify their almost certain home-ice advantage in each round.
For the Penguins, who were without Derick Brassard, Zach Aston-Reese, and Justin Schultz but up against a full-strength Bolts team, it was an important win after losing their first game back after the break. The win pulled them to second in the Metropolitan Division, but the biggest takeaway was that the first, second, and fourth lines were able to contribute to the scoring. After a woeful start, Crosby all but singlehandedly pulled the Penguins back into contention; the Penguins will need contributions from all lines if they want another shot at the Cup.
Defeating the Stanley Cup and Eastern Conference favorites 4-2 will earn Pittsburgh plenty of favor with pundits. If the Penguins want to go deep this postseason, they’ll almost certainly meet the Bolts, so their odds of +600 to win the conference including the playoffs may look more appealing after this game.
It was only Tampa Bay’s second regulation loss in 50 games, 13th overall, so the result does very little to indicate anything other than continued domination from the Bolts. It was, however, a much-needed win for the Pens in the heated Metropolitan Division to keep them away from the wild card zone.