PITTSBURGH-The Pittsburgh Penguins were supposed to be the team that stumbled in Game 3. They were the team searching for answers against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that had a strangle hold on home-ice advantage in this best-of-seven series. The Pens were the team searching for answers to the high-octane offense that the Lightning had let loose in Game 2.
Skeptic fans that have followed the Pens over the past four seasons should’ve known better than to doubt this resilient team. The Pens have bounced back time and time again when their cards were down. This team has not been dominated in a series since their appearance against the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 post-season.
Steve Downie woke up everyone at the St. Pete Times Forum when he slaughtered Ben Lovejoy behind the Pens net in the opening moments of Game 3. There was a delayed penalty coming for charging after Downie jumped about 3 ft into the air to plaster Lovejoy into the ice. Lovejoy did get his clearing attempt out of the Pens zone up to Maxime Talbot.
Talbot entered the Lightning zone on a 3-on-2 and snapped a wrist shot past the glove hand of Dwayne Roloson to take a 1-0 lead at the 5:46 mark of the 1st period. 45 seconds later, Arron Asham shocked the Lightning when he one-timed a pass from Mike Rupp on a 2-on-1 to beat Roloson. Two minutes after the Pens had quieted the Lightning crowd with two quick tallies, Marc-Andre Fleury made a spectacular save on Steven Stamkos.
Martin St. Louis tied the contest at 2 with his 2nd power play goal of the game 2:13 into the 3rd period. The stubborn Penguins would immediately respond 30 seconds later. Jordan Staal won a faceoff back to Kris Letang, and he passed across the blue line to Brooks Orpik for one-time slap shot. Tyler Kennedy gobbled up the Orpik shot, and stuffed home the rebound for a 3-2 Pens lead. The Pens held on for the Game 3 victory to grab a 2-1 series lead.
The Pens should feel supremely confident going forward in this series. Fleury has stood on his head in Games 1 & 3. They are receiving contributions from players up and down their roster. Asham, a 4th liner, is tied for the team lead in scoring, and Letang was possibly the best player on the ice next to St. Louis Monday night.
Game 3 shouldn’t have been as close as the score dictated if the Pens were not penalized for some very questionable calls. Like many experts have said, the Penguins will lose this series if they spend too much time shorthanded. The Lightning have registered a power play goal in each game. They are 4-10 on the power play in the series. The Lightning are absolutely winning the special teams battle. Totally opposite of the Lightning, the Pens are 0 for 14 on the power play in the series.
The Pens played a much more disciplined road game Monday night in Tampa Bay. Their discipline will win or lose the series. At the same time, the penalty killing unit needs to be much better, and this begs the question how much Matt Cooke is missed on the PK unit?
Chris Kunitz took a page out of the Cooke hockey manual by giving Simon Gagne a blatant elbow to the head. Kunitz was suspended one game for his elbow while Downie was suspended a game for his charge on Lovejoy as well. Both Dan Bylsma and Guy Boucher will have to juggle their lines a bit with the losses of Kunitz and Downie.
No matter who is in the line-up for the Pens, they undoubtedly need production from their power play unit. Their PP improved in Game 3, but enough is enough when talking about how the PP created more opportunities, and how the Pens power play entry was much better entering into the Lightning’s zone. There is nothing else to say besides the fact that the Pens need to score. No one cares who is on what unit or how they do it. They just need PPG on the score sheet.
From the other side of the spectrum, the Pens have done a superb job neutralizing Stamkos. He had been non-existent in this series. Stamkos had a magnificent opportunity early on in Game 3, but Fleury stoned Stamkos from point blank range right in front of the crease. This save meant more than keeping the Lightning off the scoreboard. The Pens do not want Stamkos to wake up until next season. If he would’ve scored on that chance, who knows what type of scoring streak he would be capable of for the rest of the series. The Pens need to continue to keep him off the score sheet.
Speaking of not scoring, is James Neal going to score again? That was harsh, and actually Neal needs to be cut some slack. He is one of the Pens best back-checking forwards on the team. He never takes a shift off, and he is still an effective offensive force. Players go through slumps, and he is without a doubt in a slump right now. Most players would be non-factors for the remaining of the playoffs if they were in Neal’s shoes. Any other player in a goal scoring drought similar to Neal’s would quit back-checking and not contribute in any way. Neal continues to get fantastic scoring chances every game, and he continues to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Just wait until Neal scores a huge goal down the road in the playoffs. All his hard work will finally pay off.
Playing with focus and staying out of the penalty box is vital to the Pens winning this series. This series could be over sooner rather than later if the Pens get any sort of power play production. They desperately need to fine tune their penalty kill to take down the Lighting in this series as well. The Pens definitely have the advantage 5-on-5. This series could be near an end if the Pens straighten out their special teams. The question remains, if and when is this fixing of the special teams going to take place?