PITTSBURGH – When Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh met back on November 12, Marc-Andre Fleury was a goalie with a shattered confidence. He had just been pulled in his previous start after just seven minutes. Answering the same probing questions from the media day after day became too much to handle.
Fleury would have been booed out of most arenas after his dreadful 1-6-0 start, but fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins had his back. It’s something you rarely see in the win-right-now sports world. Pre-game chants of ‘Fleury! Fleury!’ sparked the goaltender to a 5-1 win that night and he never looked back.
After reeling off 34 more wins in his next 53 games, Fleury grabbed the team’s MVP award by a landslide and found his name thrown into Hart Trophy conversations.
On Wednesday night the Tampa Bay Lightning were back in town, this time for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
In a sense, Fleury’s season had come full-circle. 18,390 showed up at the CONSOL Energy Center once again chanting their familiar cadence. With the crowd firmly behind him, Fleury stood on his head and backstopped the Penguins to a 3-0 victory. The win gave Pittsburgh an early one game advantage over the Lightning in their best-of-seven series.
“Right from the start the fans were really loud,” Fleury said after the game. “It’s something that we fought for all season, [just] to have that home ice advantage and I think they showed us why tonight.”
Both teams started the game looking to establish a physical presence. The Penguins finished the first period with a 17-16 category advantage, but it was a crushing first hit by Brooks Orpik on Steven Stamkos 90 seconds into the game that officially kick-started the postseason:
“You could tell it was a playoff type atmosphere,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “The physicality was there. Our guys did a good job staying within the confines of playing defense and trying to deny them [access to] the net.”
Eleven minutes into the contest, Tampa’s Dominic Moore (and the Penguins’ announcer) thought he had the game’s first goal after he directed a puck through the legs of Fleury only to be denied. Ryan Malone met the same fate moments later when Fleury threw his legs in the air to deny the point-blank chance:
“We had momentum,” Tampa coach Guy Boucher said afterwards. “Shots were 11 to 5 for us in the first. We got all kinds of chances and [Fleury] made great saves, but then we lost momentum because they just kept getting powerplays.”
A three-to-one powerplay advantage in the first period allowed the Penguins to slow down the Tampa attack before mounting one their own.
Shift after shift, the Pittsburgh forecheck wore down the Lightning defense but had nothing to show for it until Alex Kovalev blasted a James Neal pass into the net 6:05 into the third period:
Kovalev was tripped up on the play by Pavel Kubina and seemed to pout a bit when no penalty was called. His indifference left him in perfect position to receive the pass from Neal as Kubina trudged around the net without a stick.
“It was a great play by Paul Martin there on the wall,” Neal said. “He sucked a guy to him and gave a little dink between his legs. I got it and [Kovalev] was wide open.”
The true test of an inexperienced team is how well they can respond to adversity. With Tampa playing it’s first playoff hockey in four seasons, the goal by Kovalev seemed to completely deflate the bench.
Just 18 seconds later, Arron Asham made it 2-0 on a beautiful individual effort. His fake shot pulled both Mike Lundin and goaltender Dwayne Roloson out of position before he spun around the net and deposited the puck into the open cage.
An empty-netter by Chris Kunitz sealed the 3-0 victory for the Penguins, but Asham was quick to the put the game into perspective.
“This game means nothing if we don’t win on Friday, so we have to put this one behind us and get ready for tomorrow.”
Other Game Notes:
~ Boucher seemed frustrated by the 6 to 1 powerplay disparity in the game, but refused to admit it outright. “You’ll have some games like that, you’ll have some other games where it’s the opposite…hopefully.”
~ The Lightning took a page out of the Montreal Canadiens’ book from last season and packed as many bodies in front of the net as possible for much of the game. The Penguins attempted 77 shots and Roloson looked strong for most of the evening.
~ Pittsburgh won the faceoff battle by a slight 32-28 margin, but they generated a number of scoring chances off the draw. With Tampa packing it in near the goal, the Penguins need to continue to blast shots from the point through traffic.
~ Fleury stood on his head the entire night, but the Penguins struggled to clear out the front of the net for him. If Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are left to stand in front getting chance after chance, goals will come.
~ Game 1 was a tight affair, as the 0-0 score through 46 minutes indicated. This series feels like it has a few multi-overtime evenings in store before it’s all said and done.
~ 6-foot-4 Tampa defenseman Pavel Kubina was running on fumes the entire night and Mike Lundin was a mess in the third period. If Pittsburgh continues to forecheck relentlessly as they did in the second half of Game 1, Tampa’s defense may get exposed as the series wears on.