After being decisively outplayed in Game Three, the Lightning needed a response in Game Four. They got that response, producing a much better overall performance. One that helped them even the series at two games apiece.
Compared to Game Three, the Lightning made improvements in the following areas: puck management, winning puck battles, defensive zone coverage, offensive zone time, puck possession, shots on goal and scoring chances generated. One of the most important was puck management. The Lightning weren’t perfect – they did turn some pucks over, especially in the defensive zone – but credit the Penguins and their hard-charging forecheck for forcing some of those. Still, the Lightning drastically reduced their turnovers, which allowed them to move pucks up the ice and into the offensive zone. Once in the offensive zone, they could put pucks on net and generate chances. Their ability to win more puck battles than in Game Three was also very significant. It’s how they were able to retrieve pucks in the offensive zone and get pucks out of trouble from their own end.
Their improved puck management and battle level were on display in the opening shift. They worked the puck into the offensive zone effectively and Ryan Callahan won a puck battle behind the Pittsburgh net. Eventually, Victor Hedman took a shot from the left point that Callahan deflected past Matt Murray. The goal came just 27 seconds into the game.
The Lightning added to their lead with 5:32 left in the frame. They moved the puck up ice and attacked the Pittsburgh zone with speed. Alex Killorn fed Nikita Kucherov at the left circle. Kucherov took the puck to the corner and then wired a cross-ice pass to Andrej Sustr, who had joined the rush. The Pens lost coverage on Sustr, who buried a one-timer into the top of the net.
The Bolts added two more goals in the second. During the back end of a four-minute power play, Jonathan Drouin put a pass into the slot for Ondrej Palat. The puck hit Palat and bounced back to Drouin, who finished into an open side of the net. Then, with just over two minutes left in the period, Kucherov, Killorn and Tyler Johnson finished a three-on-two rush. Kucherov passed the puck from the left circle through the low slot to Johnson. The puck hit Johnson, deflected off Sidney Crosby’s stick and fluttered into the net. So there was some puck-luck on both second period goals, but the Lightning earned their luck by getting pucks to dangerous areas of the ice.
So what about the Penguins’ comeback in the third period? How did that happen? First of all, let’s give credit to Pittsburgh. The Pens made a furious push. They are an immensely skilled offensive team and they were able to put pressure on the Lightning. A team that is hoping to mount a big third period comeback usually needs an early goal and Phil Kessel provided one, snapping a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy 1:18 into the third. But the Penguins really didn’t get rolling until their second goal. Up until Evgeni Malkin’s tally at 11:13, third period shots were 8-7 in favor of Pittsburgh. And the Lightning had the better scoring chances. The Penguins’ all-out attack approach left them vulnerable to counter chances. But Marc-Andre Fleury, who replaced Murray in the third period, denied those Lightning looks.
Then, beginning with the Malkin goal, the Penguins outshot the Lightning, 8-0, for the rest of the game. On that goal, the Lightning had a legitimate beef that it shouldn’t have counted. Malkin was open because Chris Kunitz tripped Slater Koekkoek. But the call wasn’t made. Off the ensuing faceoff, Killorn was called for a trip and the Pens scored on their power play. The Lightning’s lead was down to 4-3 with 6:52 left.
Those were white-knuckle minutes for Lightning fans. After the Kunitz goal, the Pens fired five more shots on net and generated some dangerous chances. But in all, the Lightning handled the final 6:52 fairly well. They continued to contest loose pucks, successfully cleared pucks back to the Pittsburgh zone and boxed out well in front of Vasilevskiy.
The fact that the Lightning almost surrendered a 4-0 third period lead isn’t really the story of this game. Rather, it’s that they responded from a disappointing performance and evened the series.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
Vasilevskiy’s late save on Malkin, preserving the Lightning’s 4-3 lead.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
1.Ryan Callahan – Lightning. Goal. 21:15 TOI.
2.Victor Hedman – Lightning. Two assists.
3.Andrei Vasilevskiy – Lightning. 35 saves.