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Burns: 3 Things we learned from passing the Penguins

Bryan Burns on the game-saving penalty kill, another defenseman going down and Cirelli's fast answer

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning entered Thursday's contest at AMALIE Arena against Pittsburgh tied with the Penguins on points for fourth place in the National Hockey League.

The Lightning continued their methodical climb up the standings with a 4-2 victory over the Pens, the Bolts fifth-straight win and seventh-straight contest earning a point.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced to improve to 15-0-2 over his last 17 starts and set a new franchise record for most consecutive games with a point, passing Nikolai Khabibulin's 16-game point streak from the 2002-03 season.

Nikita Kucherov skated in his 500th career NHL game and made it a memorable milestone night, earning his 40th assist of the season on Steven Stamkos' goal at 12:55 of the first period to push the Lightning in front 2-0 and tacking on an empty-net goal with 33 seconds remaining to seal the win and extend his season-long point streak to nine games.

Stamkos also made it nine games in a row with a point after scoring his third goal in the last three games.

And Anthony Cirelli produced the game-winning goal at 9:57 of the second, beating Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray after taking the shot on a 2-on-1 rush to re-establish Tampa Bay's two-goal lead just 32 seconds after Evgeni Malkin got the Penguins on the board.

Tampa Bay has now won eight-straight games at AMALIE Arena, tied for its fourth-longest home win streak in franchise history.

Here's how the Lightning got it done against a formidable opponent.

Video: Cooper on Bolts 4-2 victory over Penguins

1. A CRITICAL KILL
When Pittsburgh was awarded nearly a minute-and-a-half of a 5-on-3 power play midway through the third period and trailing by a goal, the Lightning would have done well to get out of the sticky situation surrendering just the game-tying goal.

Instead, the penalty kill produced one of the finest moments of the season, somehow keeping the Penguins from finding the back of the net to preserve the one-goal lead and allow the Lightning to close out the victory.

The Bolts were shorthanded while they were shorthanded. Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay's top penalty killer who ranks sixth in the NHL for average PK time on ice (3:19), exited the game early in the second period after blocking a shot on a prior penalty kill. McDonagh could be seen limping down the tunnel moments later, and it was eventually announced he would not return after sustaining a lower-body injury.

Two more penalty killers, Mikhail Sergachev and Alex Killorn, were in the penalty box after committing the infractions that led to the two-man advantage for Pittsburgh.

And yet, the Lightning took the remaining penalty killers they had left on the bench and stymied a lethal Pittsburgh power play that features NHL superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

"That's a tough group to look at. Sometimes you just have to look the other way," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper joked about Pittsburgh's powerful power play. "No, but in all seriousness, coaches have done a great job preparing the guys. They've got a little synergy going on there. They're getting in front of shots. They're making their clears, and then Vasy's been huge, our goaltending's been great for us. When you've got that combination going usually good things happen."

Even with the spectacular work by the penalty kill and Vasilevskiy in net, it still took a bit of luck to get out of the situation unscathed. Late in the power play, Bryan Rust rang a shot off the far post from the left circle. Sidney Crosby was lurking in the blue paint and seemed to surely have the tying goal on his stick on the rebound.

Except Crosby wasn't able to get his blade on the bouncing puck. And then Vasilevskiy made an incredibly athletic maneuver to get his right leg back onto the post to keep any other Penguins from knocking the puck in on the ensuing scramble.

"We got put in that situation, me, (Erik Cernak) and (Anthony Cirelli) and then (Ondrej Palat) came out and we've just got to clog up the middle and don't get seamed too many times, eliminate the one-timers," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who finished with three assists on the night for his third game this season with three or more helpers. "We did a great job until that final shot they had a little bit of a scramble behind Vasy. Overall, very happy with the way we performed."

Pittsburgh held momentum for much of the third period. John Marino got the Penguins within a goal a little more than three minutes into the final stanza, and the Pens kept pushing for the tying goal. If the Penguins convert on the power play, there's a decent chance they build off that momentum and score again in the closing minutes and maybe escape with a come-from-behind victory.

The 5-on-3 penalty kill by the Lightning was clearly the pivotal moment in the game.

Video: Hedman | Postgame vs. PIT

2. GROUP OF FIVE
For the second-straight game, the Lightning had to play a majority of the contest with only five defensemen after losing a blueliner to injury.

Early in the second period, Ryan McDonagh blocked a shot with what appeared to be his foot, the impact sending the veteran defenseman flailing to the ice. McDonagh tried to game it out. He took a few small laps on the ice during a media timeout to test his injury but moments later was limping down the tunnel, his night finished.

Cooper didn't have an update on McDonagh's conditioning following the victory, but it's safe to assume the Lightning might have to recall a defenseman from Syracuse with two starters potentially out (Jan Rutta is week-to-week with a lower-body injury sustained in Tuesday's win over Vegas).

"The initial prognosis it looks isn't hopefully as bad as we think," was all Cooper could offer post-game.

Even with their limitations playing down a man plus the fatigue that comes from playing two-consecutive games with only five defensemen, the Lightning back end still held a dangerous offensive juggernaut to just two goals.

"I think we did a good job," Hedman said. "It was still fresh in our minds going down (Rutta) last game, (McDonagh) today. That's not something you want to do every game, but guys on the back end handled it well. (Braydon Coburn) hadn't played in a while, I thought he had a great game, played hard and played a lot of big minutes for us. Very happy with the five guys that finished it off."

Coburn saw his first action after not playing the previous seven games. Luke Schenn will now likely get an opportunity to return to the lineup if McDonagh isn't able to come back in time for Saturday's matchup against the New York Islanders that closes out a three-game homestand for the Bolts.

Schenn would make his first appearance since December 31 if that's the case.

Video: PIT@TBL: Cirelli capitalizes on rush to double lead

3. A TIMELY RESPONSE
Pittsburgh was fortunate to score their first goal, Patric Hornqvist sending a puck from the wall to the back post and Evgeni Malkin beating his man to the puck and getting his leg on the pass to find a way past Vasilevskiy and cut the Lightning lead to 2-1.

If the Penguins gained any momentum from that goal, it didn't last long.

Just 32 seconds after Malkin gave the Pens something to get excited about, Anthony Cirelli extinguished it with his goal to re-establish the Bolts' two-goal lead midway through the second.

"That's huge, and you need those big goals," Hedman said. "They get one back there off the knee, and we had the response from that line, and it was a good one."

As P.A. announcer Paul Porter was announcing the Penguins' scoring play, Victor Hedman got the puck in his own zone and sent a pass up ahead for Anthony Cirelli to start a 2-on-1 with Tyler Johnson.

Cirelli carried the puck into the offensive zone, and, with Jack Johnson taking away the cross-ice pass to Johnson, he loaded up for a wicked wrist shot that pinged off the near post and slipped inside the opposite post.

Cirelli now has 14 goals on the year and matched his career high for scoring in a season after registering his 39th point, the same total he posted a season ago.

"We just keep battling, and I think we got a lucky bounce there at the blue line to go the other way," Cirelli said. "Luckily, it goes in for us and just creates momentum. I think throughout the whole night, everyone was buying in, playing the right way and sticking to our game plan. To come away with the two points feels good for us."

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