For most of the first 50 minutes of this game, the Lightning dominated the Penguins. It’s true that the Bolts had a circumstantial advantage entering this game. The Penguins were without 13 players due to injury or illness and they had played the night before in Sunrise. (The Lightning hadn’t played since Saturday.) Nine of the players in Pittsburgh’s lineup had spent most of the season in the AHL and five made their NHL debuts this month. Of the seven defensemen dressed for the Pens, one, Taylor Chorney, was used as a forward. Three others, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin, had just a handful of games of NHL experience. Still, most of the Pens best players were healthy: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week last week.
But in the first two periods and a half, the Lightning’s forecheck helped force turnovers in the Pittsburgh defensive end. Consequently, the Bolts enjoyed a huge advantage in puck possession and they also generated the better and more frequent scoring chances. Fleury, as he did last week in Pittsburgh, denied some great Lightning looks in the first period. But two Tyler Johnson shots beat him, helping the Lightning open a 2-0 lead after one frame. The second of those goals came with just 3.4 seconds left in the period and gave the Lightning momentum to start the second. In the opening minute, the Bolts caught Pittsburgh in a slow line chance and Nikita Kucherov slipped behind their defenseman. He scored on a breakaway, giving the Lightning a 3-0 lead and chasing Fleury. Less than two minutes later, Johnson completed his second NHL hat trick with a rising shot over Jeff Zatkoff’s shoulder to make it 4-0. The Lightning were unable to extend the advantage, however, as Zatkoff made some nice saves the rest of the way. The Bolts also caught a tough break on an extremely quick whistle, which negated a Valtteri Filppula rebound goal. That strike would have made it, 5-0, and might have altered how the rest of the game unfolded.
Up until the 10-minute mark of the third period, the Lightning played well with the lead. A single offensive zone turnover led to Hornqvist’s goal at 10:15 of the second, but the Lightning continued to carry play. Specifically, they did well moving pucks out of their own zone and keeping the Pens puck possession time to a minimum. The Pittsburgh looks were limited to ones off the rush – the Pens had very few extended offensive zone shifts. Andrei Vasilevskiy did make an important save on a Crosby breakaway early in the third, preserving what was a 4-1 lead at that time.
But an ill-advised turnover just as a Lightning power play expired resulted in a Kunitz breakaway goal at 9:55 of the third. That goal cut the margin to 4-2 and it gave the Penguins life. Shortly thereafter, the Pens enjoyed an extended stretch in the offensive zone. It was their longest sustained attack in the game. But they couldn’t cut into the deficit. Eventually, with about six minutes left, the Lightning settled down and did well to work pucks low in the Pittsburgh end for the next several minutes. The Penguins pulled Zatkoff with over two minutes left and scored a sixth-attacker goal at 18:29. But the Lightning defended the final 91 seconds well and kept the Penguins from any other dangerous looks.
The Bolts would have preferred not to have to endure such anxious moments at the end of the game. But Pittsburgh’s late comeback effort does not take away from how well the Lightning played for the majority of the game. In particular, the Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov-Ondrej Palat line was unstoppable all game. They combined for all four goals, nine points and produced 11 of the team’s 27 shots. After posting a 1-3-1 mark on the road trip, this was an important statement win heading into the Christmas break.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
Johnson’s goal with 3.4 seconds left in the first period, giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
1.Tyler Johnson – Lightning. Hat trick.
2.Nikita Kucherov – Lightning. Goal and two assists.
3.Ondrej Palat – Lightning. Three assists.