Still, the Lightning have to be wondering what if after having numerous opportunities to fly back to Tampa with a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Lightning battled back from an early 2-0 deficit to level the score before the end of the first period in Game 2. After playing evenly with the Pens in the second period and dodging numerous bullets in the third, the Lightning’s luck ran out shortly into overtime as Sidney Crosby got an open look from the slot and buried his opportunity just 40 seconds into the extra session.
The Lightning will try to get back in the win column on Wednesday in front of their home fans with Game 3 at Amalie Arena.
There were plenty of positives to draw from Game 2 for the Lightning, despite the loss.
We’ll go through each in today’s 3 Things.
1. RESILIENCY TESTED YET AGAIN
Adversity is a constant theme for the 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning.
All season, the Bolts have had to deal with setbacks. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were injured for large portions of the first half of the regular season. Before the playoffs, Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos were lost. J.T. Brown missed most of the First Round and all of the Second Round with an upper-body injury.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, Tampa Bay’s season-long MVP Ben Bishop was carted off on a stretcher in the first period.
Yet, through it all, the Lightning remained poised, relied on their organizational depth and continued to push through.
Prior to Game 2, the Bolts felt the injury tides might be shifting in their favor a bit. Stamkos was skating again and doing so in a regular jersey, getting closer to a return. The prognosis on Bishop wasn’t anywhere near as severe as initially feared, his status day-to-day and not out for the season as it looked like it might have been. Brown was back in the lineup. Stralman returned too for the first time since March 25, making his playoff debut in Game 2 and scoring the Bolts’ first goal.
But, again, the Lightning were dealt a considerable blow before taking the ice at Consol.
Ryan Callahan didn’t skate at the Bolts’ morning skate on Monday, but his absence wasn’t particularly noteworthy because the practice was optional. Other players weren’t there too. But when Callahan didn’t come out for pregame warmups, the Lightning would be forced yet again to find a way to win with a depleted lineup.
Around the time the puck dropped for Game 2, the Lightning announced Callahan had the flu and would miss the contest. His availability for Game 3 in Tampa when the series shifts to Amalie Arena is unknown. Following the 3-2 overtime loss to the Penguins on Monday, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Callahan hadn’t left his hotel room all day.
“He’s got the flu really bad,” Cooper said. “I’m not even sure Callahan’s moved from his bed. I felt awful for him.”
The entire city of Pittsburgh thought it got a raw deal when Callahan wasn’t suspended for boarding Kris Letang and forcing the Pens’ best defenseman to leave Game 1 for a stretch of the first period.
As it turned out, Callahan was held out of Game 2 anyway but for an entirely different reason. Callahan’s absence was reminiscent of last year’s postseason when he was forced to miss the clinching Game 6 of a Second Round series against Montreal after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Callahan, miraculously, was back in the lineup five days later and only missed one game.
Hopefully, this latest setback will only sideline him one game too.
“The ultimate gamer is Ryan Callahan, and you know when he couldn’t get himself out of bed that’s an unfortunate loss for us at a time when we need him,” Cooper said. “So, hopefully he’ll be okay for the next game.”
2. THERE FOR THE TAKING
The challenge facing Tampa Bay in Game 2 was enormous.
The Lightning would have to play without Bishop and Callahan. They fell behind 2-0 in the first 10 minutes to a desperate Pittsburgh team facing a must-win situation. They were forced to rally in front of a hostile crowd trying to make things as difficult possible.
If someone had told the Lightning going into the game they’d be tied 2-2 going into overtime under those circumstances, they would have taken that scenario all day long.
The fact is, the Lightning really had no business being as close as they were, especially after getting outplayed for large stretches of the first period and the majority of the third and facing so many hardships along the way.
That they had a chance to win it late in the third period when a couple good scoring chances presented themselves in the final couple minutes is a testament to how battle-tested this team has become.
Still, nobody in the Lightning locker room wanted to talk about consolation prizes following the game.
“We can’t expect to put our gear on and make magic happen,” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “It takes more.”
Pittsburgh took control of the game in the third period and had every indication of taking the lead in front of their boisterous fans. One shift in particular midway through the period where Sidney Crosby generated three or four opportunities on his own had the crowd sensing a goal was imminent.
But it never came because Andrei Vasilevskiy would turn in a superb effort in net to give the Lightning a chance.
With about five minutes remaining, that opportunity came for the Bolts. An outlet pass hit Nikita Kucherov in stride as he crossed into the offensive zone shoulder-to-shoulder with a Penguins’ defenseman. Had Kucherov received the puck cleanly, he could have pulled away and had a one-on-one opportunity with Pens goalie Matt Murray.
Kucherov fumbled the puck a bit though, giving the D-man time to get into position. The threat wasn’t over, however, as Kucherov saw Ondrej Palat streaking toward goal on his right. Kucherov dished the puck his way, and an unmarked Palat skated in on Murray. Palat held the puck, drew Murray out of position and tried to slip a shot five hole. He was never able to get a clean shot off though, and the Lightning’s chance to steal Game 2 went by the wayside.
“Second game in a row in the third period, we’re just not generating enough,” Cooper said. “Especially tonight, we were a little bit opportunistic. I mean, we had some big-time chances, especially last couple shifts in the third period, but we were just too much one and done and not taking advantage of what we’re good at. We do it in spurts, but we haven’t done it for six periods now against these guys.”
Had the Lightning gotten blown out in Game 2, they could have brushed it off as just the result of a combination of unfortunate circumstances.
Having some many things go against them and to still have the game on their stick late in the third makes the loss an even tougher pill to swallow.
3. THE DYNAMIC DUO
The Lightning already know what they have in Ben Bishop, the Bolts goalie turning in a Vezina-worthy season.
But Andrei Vasilevskiy has proven during these playoffs there’s not much drop off, if any, when he’s in the game.
Vasilevskiy shined in relief of Bishop in Game 1. With Game 2 all to himself, Vasilevskiy was nearly the catalyst for an improbable Bolts win.
“He was awesome,” Boyle said. “He gave us a chance. He was tremendous for us.”
Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 41-21 in Game 2. They held a 16-6 shot advantage in the third period, but Vasilevskiy stood tall and played one of the best games of his young NHL career.
One save in particular showed just what the 21-year-old is capable of. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Crosby got off a wide-open backhander from the right edge of the goal with a large portion of the net open. Undoubtedly, Crosby was going to bury the opportunity and regain the lead for Pittsburgh, but somehow, Vasilevskiy slid over and robbed him with a reactionary swipe of his glove, snaring the puck centimeters before it crossed the goal line.
“I got pretty good wood on it,” Crosby would say after the game. “…He’s a big guy and can cover a lot of net and got over pretty quick.”
Bishop is day-to-day with a lower-body injury and seems likely to return in the series and maybe even as soon as Game 3.
But even if he can’t go, the Lightning have all the faith in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“He’s outstanding,” Cooper said. “You never want to lose your number one guy in Bish, but you’ve got 1-A-plus right behind him. I thought he was outstanding tonight and probably the reason why that game went to overtime in the first place.”