Penguins Must Expect Comeback Effort from Lightning

To say the Pittsburgh Penguins dominated Game 3 of this Eastern Conference Final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amale Arena on Wednesday night would be an understatement. Through the final 40 minutes, coach Mike Sullivan‘s group outshot their foe 38-16, including 21-6 in the middle stanza. Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy did all he could, making 44 saves giving up four goals. Matt Murray had to make a few good saves in his own right in posting a 26-save effort to continue his amazing story in these playoffs.

“I thought we had a great first period. We were all over them, but that second period, we had a little bit of a letdown, and that just can’t happen.”
Tyler Johnson

This is the first time the Lightning have trailed in a playoff series this year, but Jon Cooper‘s group has been through this adversity. Last year, they trailed against the Detroit Red Wings three times before winning the series in seven games. To get to the Final, they had to overcome a blowout loss on home ice before winning in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. This series, the Penguins have outshot the 124-69, but don’t have a stranglehold on the series yet and had to win in OT after the Lightning came back from a two-goal deficit to avoid going down 0-2 going to Florida.

“We have been to three playoffs together, and we have been in every different situation. Up two, down two, up 2-1, down 2-1, so it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”
– Jon Cooper

To move one step closer to putting away the Lightning, the Penguins need to bring the same intensity with a few more players contributing. Sidney Crosby is starting to turn it on with a goal in back-to-back games, Patric Hornqvist has been huge with six goals (including an OT winner), and the Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line is doing its thing, but to combat the Lightning’s Game 4 effort, they need more from other sources.

Kris Letang had a big first round series against the New York Rangers putting up a goal and five points, but has just four assists in nine games since. If he can regain his Norris-worthy scoring touch in addition to continuing his solid possession numbers (53% CF%), the Penguins will be in a good position to win this series. Another big pillar that’s long overdue for an impact is Evgeni Malkin. Since a two-goal, seven point effort in four games against the Rangers, the 29-year old Magnitogorsk native has not scored in eight games since scoring in Game 1 against the Washington Capitals and did not register a point in six straight until tallying an assist last game. Crosby has gotten it going. It’s time for Malkin to have some sort of impact on the scoresheet. He seems like he’s on the verge, posting a 56% CF% in his last seven while registering 22 shots in that span, including seven in Game 1. Conor Sheary and Chris Kunitz have combined for four goals this postseason bouncing around in the top six, and any sort of contribution from them would also forward the cause.

Defensively, the Penguins need to continue their shot suppression of the Lightning (23 S/G). The Alex Killorn-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov trio after combining for 16 goals and 34 points in the first two rounds (10 games) has combined for just two goals, four points and 17 shots in the first three games of this series. One would have to think they’ll eventually break though, so the Penguins must take advantage of the time they are in a lull. Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin have chipped in with four of the Lightning’s seven markers in the series, so Cooper has some pieces of contribution to play with should he decide to reunite the triplets or throw Drouin with them. On face-offs, the Penguins have had the slim edge winning 54% of draws, including 60% in the offensive zone. Defensive zone face-offs were a strength for the Lightning coming in at 52% this postseason, but so far they have had no answer for the dynamic Pittsburgh attack. The Lightning have won 49% of draws in the offensive zone, a number that must improve if they want to generate more shot totals as Pittsburgh has.

In goal, Matt Murray just needs to keep doing what he has been doing most of this run. After a combined .878 save percentage in games 1 and 2, the 21-year old responded with a strong 26-save performance in Game 3 posting a .929 mark in the win. No matter what the circumstance, he’s been up to the challenge all playoffs long. He’ll need to be ready for a response from the defending Eastern Conference Champions in Game 4 and beyond.

Though they have a 2-1 series lead, the Penguins have not seen the best from this Lightning group, one that came two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup last season. If the Penguins want to achieve those same aspirations, they must expect the best from Tampa Bay with their backs against the wall on home ice. If Pittsburgh can get a few more contributions and continue their sparkling series defensively, they’ll be well on their way to have a chance at achieving those aspirations.

But they’re only halfway there.

Quotes courtesy of TampaBayLightning.com
Stats courtesy of ESPN, War-On-Ice, NHL.com

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