If the Pittsburgh Penguins believed that knocking off the Presidents’ Trophy winners entitled them to a spot in the Stanley Cup Final, Friday proved they were sorely mistaken.
Without Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman and then even without Ben Bishop for nearly the final 47 minutes of Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning continued their impressive march to return to the Stanley Cup Final by beating Pittsburgh 3-1.
21-year-old backup Andrei Vasilevskiy was the latest member of the Lightning to step up and play well in place of a starter. He stopped 25 of 26 shots, and the only one that slipped passed him was on a power play where he was actually screened by his own man.
Bishop’s status moving forward is still unknown, but he left the ice on a stretcher. Speculating obviously doesn’t do anyone any good, but judging by the amount of pain he was in, it looks like the Lightning could be Vasilevskiy’s team moving forward.
If that’s the case, Tampa Bay laid a perfect blue print for beating Pittsburgh with their backup goaltender.
The Penguins best chances at 5-on-5 actually came against Bishop in the first seven minutes. Ryan Callahan was called for a five-minute boarding penalty less than three minutes into the game. Although Pittsburgh didn’t score, they generated a few chances and kept up that momentum after the penalty expired.
On the play Bishop was hurt, he fumbled the puck a bit in the trapezoid and Conor Sheary pressured him into turning it over. That produced a mad scramble in front of the net. Pittsburgh was unable to capitalize, but Bishop suffered his injury attempting to get back in the crease.
At that point, Pittsburgh led in shots 9-2. However, the lengthy injury timeout seemed to take the sails out of the Penguins’ game. Tampa Bay quickly turned the game around, registering 13 of the next 24 shots and taking a 3-0 lead.
Pittsburgh had a 16-5 advantage in the shot department during the third period, but none of them were really dangerous chances. Overall, the Penguins lacked urgency and even looked a little tired. Maybe the previous series versus Washington that ended just three days prior took more out of them that originally believed.
But a lot of credit should also be given to Tampa Bay, who played excellent defense after getting the lead. The Lightning made it difficult to get anything to the net, blocking 20 shots, and the shots that went through weren’t dangerous chances, as the Penguins failed to get anyone in front of Vasilevskiy.
If Tampa Bay plans to steal Game 2 and take a stranglehold before heading back home, it will have to follow the same game plan. Scoring first is always important in the NHL, but it will be paramount if Vasilevskiy starts. Should they get an early lead again, the Lightning can sit back a bit more, block shots and create offense via Penguins turnovers, which is how they scored their third goal Friday.
For the Penguins, they need to remember that this only one game. A series cannot be won in one night, but this should be a bit of a wake up call. Despite all the missing stars, the Lightning are still a dangerous team, and the Penguins must find more energy and speed quickly or they could be in trouble after Monday’s game.
Because of this loss, the pressure is also going to continue to mount on Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and coach Mike Sullivan. Crosby picked up an assist, but he hasn’t scored in eight playoff games. Malkin doesn’t have a point in the last five. Those stars have to start scoring.
As for Sullivan, each loss means more questions about Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray. The 21-year-old didn’t play poorly in Game 1, but the questions will still come. It’s not inconceivable to think Sullivan could turn to Fleury to get the attention of his team in Game 2.
The Penguins have responded well to every bit of adversity they’ve faced this season. Tampa Bay showcased its resiliency in Game 1; Pittsburgh will have to do the same in order to tie the series Monday.