Facing a depleted Pittsburgh team playing the second half of a back-to-back, the Lightning put together a disjointed effort. Sure the Lightning recorded a season-high 48 shots, a game after putting up 46 against Colorado, but they never really seemed to find their flow in the game.
The power play was anemic too until its fourth and final attempt. With less than a minute remaining, Victor Hedman cranked a shot from the high slot that eluded Tristan Jarry, Ondrej Palat providing a screen in front that took the eyes away from the Pittsburgh goalie.
Ahead 3-2, the Lightning were on the way to their fifth win of the season but needed a late scramble save by Andrei Vasilevskiy in the closing seconds, Vasilevskiy diving in front of the open net with bodies crashing around him and swiping a puck off the line with less than a second remaining to preserve the win. The NHL situation room in Toronto took a long look at the play, but no replay could show definitively the puck crossed the line.
The Lightning will take the win, no doubt. With Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Bjugstag, among others, all out due to injury, the Bolts needed to come out of this contest victorious. But they'll also have plenty to work on before their next game Saturday at Colorado.
Here were the three main takeaways from the dramatic win.
Video: PIT@TBL: Hedman nets late go-ahead power-play goal
1. POWER PLAY FINDS A WAY
Tampa Bay's power play was completely out of rhythm over its first three attempts.
The Lightning switched up the power-play lines at practice this week, and the new units looked like a work in progress against Pittsburgh. Ondrej Palat, moving up to the top power-play unit, nearly added to the Lightning lead late in the first period on the Bolts' first chance on the man-advantage, Palat receiving Nikita Kucherov's feed down load, spinning and shooting for the far post, an attempt that just missed the target.
Beyond that, the Lightning got nothing out of their power play.
That is, until its fourth and final opportunity.
Jake Guentzel was called for hooking with 2:05 to play, the Penguins forward committing the infraction tying up Anthony Cirelli on a two-on-one break. Part of the way through the ensuing power play, the Lightning substituted Brayden Point for Nikita Kucherov on the top unit as it continued to search for any kind of rhythm.
With the revamped unit on the ice, the Lightning finally made something positive happen.
Tyler Johnson took possession of the puck in the left circle then dropped a pass back for Steven Stamkos. With Johnson moving to the right circle, Stamkos teed up a shot for Hedman to drive into the back of the net.
Midway on its path to Hedman, the puck started rolling, but the Lightning defenseman was still able to get all of his stick on it.
"Yeah, I saw the replay, I mean, I made a flat pass," Stamkos said, smiling. "That was the ice. It was flat halfway and then it jumped, so maybe that's what we needed was a little bit of luck that it calmed down."
"It wasn't really (a flat pass), but he's more of a shooter," Hedman countered a few moments later.
However it happened, the puck found the back of the net and the Lightning emerged victorious.
Tampa Bay's power play may have sputtered much of the night, but when the Lightning absolutely needed a goal, the power play was able to come through.
Hopefully the late goal is something the power play can build on as it continues to search for the same rhythm it had a season ago.
Video: Cooper on Bolts 3-2 win
2. SECOND PERIOD SWOON
You wouldn't know it by looking at the shot counter, but the Lightning's second period was about as disjointed as they come.
The Bolts had no flow to their game. A team known for their pace and quickness looked slow and tentative against an undermanned Pittsburgh team, this despite owning a 22-11 advantage in shots for the period, the 22 shots a season high for the most the Lightning have put up in a period.
Much like the Colorado game, however, the shot totals were not indicative of the play on the ice. The Lightning only threatened the Penguins' net periodically in the second, their greatest chance coming when Yanni Gourde lunged to get a puck on net from the edge of the slot and slipped it under Jarry's leg only to watch it slide through the blue paint and hit the opposite post.
In the same sequence, the Penguins started up the ice the other way, the puck eventually ending up on the stick of Sidney Crosby in the slot, who, with room to shoot, instead dished off to his left for a wide-open Guentzel to easily slam into the net and give Pittsburgh its only lead at 2-1 with :59 seconds remaining in the middle frame.
Earlier in the period, Brandon Tanev was allowed to possess the puck inside the Lightning zone for what seemed like an eternity before getting to the net and roofing a backhanded shot over the shoulder of Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to level the score 1-1.
The Penguins had other chances in the middle frame too. A bad Lightning change led to a 3-on-1 for Pittsburgh that was mercifully broken up by the one for the Bolts.
The Lightning will point to the second period and say they put up twice as many shots as Pittsburgh. But the Penguins had the better chances.
And a period in which the Lightning could have built on their lead and pulled away instead ended with the Pens in the lead and in control.
Video: PIT@TBL: Paquette ties the game with redirection
3. A WELCOME RETURN
Lightning forward Cedric Paquette made his season debut Wednesday after missing the first eight games of the season with an upper-body injury sustained during the preseason finale.
Paquette immediately made an impact in his return too.
With the Lightning trailing 2-1 in the third period, Paquette blasted Erik Gudbranson behind the Penguins net into the boards, bounced off Gudbranson and back to the edge of the crease just in time to get a tip on Ryan McDonagh's one-timer from the slot to level the score 2-2 with 12:54 remaining.
Luke Witkowski, who finished with a game-high nine hits, got leveled by Jack Johnson as he made a heads-up feed to find McDonagh streaking all alone into the slot.
"I think someone said, especially for him, you don't know what you're missing until he's not in the lineup," Stamkos said after the game about Paquette's return. "For him to come back and obviously score a big goal but just adds a different element to our team and that line. He even said, it's going to take some time to get back up to speed, but I think just having him back in the lineup brings that element. He's great on face-offs, he's great at defending, great on the penalty kill. Even last year, he scored some timely goals for us, and tonight was another example."
Paquette developed instant chemistry with his linemates Witkowski and Pat Maroon during the preseason, and those three combined again to be an effective trio with Paquette back in the fold.
"I don't play for goals, but every time the fourth line gets a goal, it's nice," Paquette said. "…We're on the same page. We just want to get the puck deep and go at it. We've been physical since the preseason, and we won't change."