The Lightning wrestled home-ice advantage away from the Penguins after winning Game 1 at Consol Energy Center. The Bolts nearly made it a 2-0 series lead in Game 2 before falling in overtime.
On Wednesday, Tampa Bay looked to consolidate that home-ice advantage by taking care of the Penguins at Amalie Arena.
Unfortunately, it’s back to the drawing board after a sub-par performance by the Bolts.
Buoyed by its home crowd, Tampa Bay had a jump in its step to start Game 3 and created a number of good scoring opportunities at the Penguins’ net. That momentum, however, waned as the period wore on, and by the second period, Pittsburgh had taken control. The Penguins kept the puck in the offensive zone throughout the period, especially over the second half, forcing Bolts goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to play out of his mind to keep them off the board.
He nearly did too, but Pittsburgh took advantage of a poor turnover to score with 10 seconds left in the period and net the game’s opening goal.
From there, the flood gates opened as the Penguins built a 4-1 advantage and won 4-2, taking a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Lightning took Pittsburgh’s best shot on Wednesday and were left reeling. But the Bolts weren’t knocked to the canvas.
Not by a long shot.
Tampa Bay has shown too much playoff resiliency in the past to write them off this early.
The Bolts will look to get back on track in Game 4. We’ll break down how they can even the series back up on Friday in today’s 3 Things.
1. NOT ENOUGH SHOTS
Pittsburgh rookie goaltender Matt Murray is playing just his third season of professional hockey, two of those seasons coming at the American Hockey League level.
Murray was recalled twice from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season, making his NHL debut on December 19 in a 2-1 loss to Carolina. He got four starts in his first recall to Pittsburgh and was brought back for a second stint at the beginning of March. He has remained with the Pens since, starting 13 games in total during the regular season and going 9-2-1.
Murray’s appearance in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs is his first-ever NHL postseason experience.
The 21-year-old had never felt the pressure of an Eastern Conference Final until a week ago. The weight of an entire city’s expectations falls on his shoulders.
The gravity of the situation should be enough to induce a mistake or two from Murray.
Yet, Tampa Bay is letting him off the hook because they aren’t sending enough shots his way.
Through the first three games of the series, the Lightning are averaging just 23 shots per contest. After barely cracking 20 shots in the first two games, the Bolts put up a few more in Game 3 – 28 to be exact – but when figuring in Pittsburgh’s 48 shots on Wednesday, the Lightning’s total seems paltry by comparison.
“I know we can play better than this,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said after the Game 3 loss.
Here’s the frustrating part for the Bolts: Murray has not particularly been at the top of his game. It’s not like the rookie is making unreal save after unreal save. He’s spilled a puck or two here or there. He’s given up a ton of rebound and second-chance opportunities.
The Lightning, however, haven’t been able to take advantage. Too many times in this series, the Bolts are one and done when they enter the zone.
If they can get some more traffic in front of Murray and crash the net when a shot does get sent his way, perhaps the Lightning can pounce on one of those rebounds and slip one past Murray.
If nothing else, the threat of the rebound could increase the pressure on Murray to make a clean save on the initial shot and maybe result in a leaky goal or two.
2. TOO MANY SHOTS
Conversely, the Lightning are giving up way too many shots to Pittsburgh so far in the series.
Bolts backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has performed spectacularly while Ben Bishop heals from a day-to-day lower-body injury.
In Game 3, Vasilevskiy made 44 stops, the most ever by a Tampa Bay goalie in a regulation playoff game according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Unfortunately, he faced 48 shots.
The Lightning fell 4-2 in Game 3 despite Vasilevskiy’s brilliance, mainly because they couldn’t keep the Penguins away from their net.
“It’s extremely disappointing to give up 48 shots in your home building in a playoff game,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s unacceptable. So I just feel bad for the kid that he’s keeping us in there, and we’re not finding a way to bail him out. The way things have gone these two games, it doesn’t matter who’s in net. You know, we could have (Bishop) and Vasy both playing at the same time, and (the Penguins) might have squeaked a couple in. So we have to be better as a group in front of him. He was probably the obvious bright spark in tonight’s game.”
Through the opening three games of the Eastern Conference Final, Pittsburgh is averaging 41 shots a game.
“The volume of shots we’re giving up and some of the chances we’re giving up are just way too many,” Cooper said. “We’ve gone through multiple playoff games, and we don’t give this up in, gosh, two or three games combined. And so that’s a five-guys-on-the-ice issue, and…we’ve got to tighten up. Now we’ve played them a couple times, and we’ll make some adjustments and go from there.”
The Lightning held a 12-7 shots advantage three-fourths of the way through the opening period. From there, Pittsburgh outshot the Bolts 28 to 9 up until the point Phil Kessel wristed a shot past Vasilevskiy to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead five minutes into the third period.
“I know we can play better than this,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “They kind of weathered the storm a little bit in the first (period) there, and we almost did the same thing in the second. That was a tough one to let in with 10 seconds to go. But, overall it’s just a lack of quality right now. A lot of it is I think self-inflicted too. They’re a really good team. We’re just kind of feeding them right now. We need to clean it up. That’s not going to cut it.”
3. STAR SEARCHING
During the Second Round against the New York Islanders, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov were difference makers for the Lightning. Hedman scored four goals and tallied eight points total through the five-game series, both Lightning franchise playoff records for a defenseman in a series.
Kucherov, meanwhile, netted four goals himself against the Islanders to move into the NHL playoff goal lead. His goals came at timely moments too. In Game 3 with the Bolts trailing 4-3 and their net empty, Kucherov found a soft spot in the Islanders’ coverage around the left circle and was able to one-time a pass from Jonathan Drouin into the net to send the game to overtime, where the Lightning would win it.
In Game 4, he scored the tying goal at 7:49 of the third period in another game the Bolts would prevail in overtime.
But so far in the Eastern Conference Final, neither player has been able to recapture that magic from the previous round.
Hedman has two assists in three games but has yet to score a goal. Kucherov went without a point through the first two games before tallying a pair of assists in Game 3. He, too, hasn’t found the back of the net against the Penguins.
Certainly, Pittsburgh has recognized just how dangerous Hedman and Kucherov can be, how integral they are to Tampa Bay’s success and has focused their efforts on limiting the duo.
But the Lightning have to find a way to get their superstars the puck in advantageous positions, especially with Steven Stamkos still waiting on the sideline to get clearance to resume playing again.
Hedman and Kucherov have the ability to change the direction of the series.
The Bolts need to figure out how to let them.