Sometimes the NHL schedule makers get things right. Sometimes, not so much. The first game of the 2016-17 season featuring a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins was set for tonight at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
It could not come at a worse time for the Lightning, having lost seven of their last ten games. By the same token, this rematch came at the best time of this young season for the Penguins, winners of their last four and within two points of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Speaking of two points, that is how many points the Lightning were out of a playoff spot coming into tonight’s game. So, the two points in this game would mean quite a lot for whichever team earns them. Let’s take a look at what transpired tonight in Tampa:
Not only was this a rematch of the last ECF but both young goalies, Andrei Vasilevskiy for Tampa and Matt Murray for Pittsburgh, who battled for seven games last season were starting opposite each other yet again. Tampa’s Coach Jon Cooper went with his 11/7 format attempting to bolster the defensive play with an extra D-man.
Tha additional man was a non-factor as the Penguins took the lead with the game’s first goal at 12:03 of the first period on a goal by Sidney Crosby. After outmuscling Tampa’s Cedric Paquette for position in front of Vasilevskiy, Crosby, completely prone face first on the ice, wrapped the puck around Vasilevskiy’s outstretched stick to light the lamp. The goal was Crosby’s 19th of the season.
Cooper challenged the goal thinking Crosby interfered with his goalie. The goal stood but minutes later, Crosby took a scary but un-penalized hit by the Lightning’s Luke Witkowski and left the game for the rest of the period after hitting the boards awkwardly with the side of his head. This is where the game began to resemble last year’s seven game series.
The Penguins were dominating the puck possession and had shots on goal through the first twenty as the game was being battled in the neutral zone. Strong goaltending from both young goalies kept the game close. At 16:07 of the first, Evgeni Malkin appeared to lose his skating edge and as he was falling to the ice, his stick clipped Jonathan Drouin on the cheek. Cut and needing stitches, Drouin went in for repair and Malkin went out for four minutes.
The hockey gods were at work in the second minute of Malkin’s penalty as Drouin scored his fifth goal to tie the game at one where it stood at the end of the period. Throughout the first period, the game became chippy. The hit on Crosby added to this but prior to that, Nikita Kucherov and Trevor Daley introduced each other to their fists and both were assessed five for fighting.
The Lightning had to kill off the last 1:13 of an Alex Killorn penalty to start the second frame. Crosby helped the cause by slashing Victor Hedman with a dozen seconds left on the Killorn penalty. While the Lightning didn’t capitalize on that power play chance, Valtteri Filppula did give Tampa a 2 – 1 lead with his sixth goal on the season about 30 seconds after the Penguins killed off their penalty.
It has been evident that the Lightning has struggled over the last couple of weeks especially when trailing but they have done well once they take a lead in a game. After Filppula’s goal, Drouin scored a highlight reel goal after Jason Garrison lofted the puck toward’s the Pens zone and Drouin skated past Ian Cole and deked Murray to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead. It was his sixth goal for the year and the first two goal game of his career.
After the Lightning’s Andrej Sustr was called for a holding penalty, Malkin scored his 11th of the year on the ensuing man advantage to bring Pittsburgh back to within one goal and that is where the period ended with a 3-2 Tampa lead.
Entering the final period, the one goal game began to take on a playoff feel. Checks were being finished, shots were being challenged and passes were being deflected. Even some extra-curricular activity sprung up after the whistle at times.
After Nikita Nesterov went to the box on a high sticking call, Crosby netted his second of the game and his 20th of the season to tie the game at three five minutes into the third. Clearly, the momentum of the game was shifting towards the Penguins.
At 8:25 of the period, Braydon Coburn was whistled for two for hooking Carl Hagelin. After the whistle on that call, Paquette and Cole went toe to toe and each got the five minutes for fighting and Paquette added a misconduct penalty.
Malkin made Tampa pay a mere 11 seconds later with his second of the game and his 12th of the year to give Pittsburgh a 4 – 3 lead that stood as the final score. This was Pittsburgh’s third power play goal of the game.
The two points were earned by Pittsburgh tonight and some bad blood was seen from both sides. Keep in mind that these two teams played seven hard fought games last spring. It was the longest playoff series for the Cup Champion Penguins.
Might we see a rematch this playoff year? The Pens are doing their part. The Lightning not so much.
PIT-Sidney Crosby (19) assisted by Brian Dumolin, Kris Letang
TB- Jonathan Drouin (5) assisted by Anton Stralman, Nikita Kucherov
TB-Valterri Filppula (6) assisted by Nikita Nesterov
TB-Jonathan Drouin (4) assisted by Jason Garrison, Vlad Namestnikov
PIT-Evgeni Malkin (11) assisted by Phil Kessel, Kris Letang
PIT -Sidney Crosby (20) assisted by Phil Kessel, Kris Letang
PIT-Evgeni Malkin (12) assisted by Trevor Daley, Phil Kessel
THW Three Stars
First: Sidney Crosby (2 goals, +1)
Second: Jonathan Drouin (2 goals, +1)
Third: Evgeni Malkin (2 goals)
What’s Up Next
Tampa Bay Lightning at Calgary Flames
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016
Scotiabank Saddledome – 9:30 p.m. EST
Broadcast channel – Fox Sports Sun