By the time they hosted Game One of the Eastern Conference Final, the 2015-16 season had already been an eventful one for the Penguins. In mid-December, they made a coaching change. The Penguins promoted former Lightning assistant coach Mike Sullivan, who had been coaching their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Pens lost their first four games under Sullivan, but eventually turned things around. Sullivan wanted to implement a fast-paced, attacking, up-tempo system and once the players got acclimated to it, the team took off. Pittsburgh went 13-1 to wrap up the regular season and finished with 104 regular season points, good for second in the Conference to the Caps.
The Pens stormed past the New York Rangers in the first round, winning the series in five games - they outscored New York in Games Four and Five by a 11-3 combined score. The series versus the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals was much closer. All four of Pittsburgh's wins were by a goal and the Penguins won Games Four and Six in overtime.
The Eastern Conference Final began on Friday, May 13 in Pittsburgh. The Lightning came out of the first period with a 1-0 lead, courtesy of an Alex Killorn breakaway goal at 18:46. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they also saw their starting goalie have to leave the game in that opening frame. Just past the halfway point of the period, Ben Bishop sustained a leg injury and left the ice on a stretcher.
This was a scary, sobering moment in the game and it seemed to affect players on both sides. The start of the game had been filled with emotion and was high-energy. After the Bishop injury, the atmosphere was more subdued. The Penguins had posted nine shots on net prior to the injury - they only had one shot for the rest of the frame. Likewise, the Lightning didn't generate much, at least not until Killorn opened the scoring with 1:14 left in the first.
Early in the second period, the Lightning received their first power play chance of the game and they would extend the lead. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray made a save on a Valtteri Filppula shot from the left circle, but failed to control the rebound. An unguarded Ondrej Palat jumped on the puck and slid it into an open side of the net. With under two minutes left in the period, Jonathan Drouin made it 3-0. He finished off a three-on-one rush, one-timing a pass from Palat. But on the next shift, the Lightning took a penalty and Patric Hornqvist wristed a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy in the final minute of the period.
That late goal sparked the Penguins, who pushed hard in the third to rally. They outshot the Lightning, 16-5. But Vasilevskiy didn't allow another goal and the Lightning won Game One, 3-1.
As compared to the rest of the series, Game One was somewhat of an outlier contest. The Bishop injury and its effect on the game was palpable. The Penguins, as we would see for much of the rest of the series, weren't at their best, either. They allowed two goals on odd-man rushes and a third when they left Palat unguarded in front. Pittsburgh would be much better defensively as the series progressed. On the other hand, the Penguins' push in the third period, a frame in which they badly outshot the Lightning, would repeat itself frequently over the next six games.
Bishop would not return for the rest of the series, but the Lightning did welcome back defenseman Anton Stralman for Game Two. Stralman had suffered a broken leg in late March. He would play the next six games, but later admitted that his leg still hadn't fully healed. Stralman made an immediate impact in the first period of Game Two, however, scoring a goal with 3:23 left. The Penguins had jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, but Stralman's tally cut the deficit in half. Drouin tied the game in the period's final minute - he wristed a rising shot from the right circle that sailed between Murray's right arm and body.
At that point in the series, Murray had allowed five goals in four periods. But he settled down in the second period, stopping all seven shots he faced. With the game still tied at two entering the third, the Penguins, as they had done in the third period of Game One, tilted the ice. They outshot the Lightning, 16-6, and decisively dictated play. Thanks to Vasilevskiy, though, the Lightning navigated through the third period and got the game to overtime. With the next goal, they would have taken a 2-0 series lead and put the Pens in a big hole. Instead, though, Sidney Crosby ended things in the opening minute of OT. The Lightning weren't tight in their coverage through the neutral zone as Brian Dumoulin passed the puck to Bryan Rust. That led to a two-on-one for Rust and Crosby. Crosby finished his shot from the slot, tying the series at one.
Vasilevskiy had given his team a chance, but the Lightning knew they hadn't played their best in Game Two. They were sharper in what was a scoreless opening period of Game Three. It was the first period in the series in which the Lightning had outshot Pittsburgh. But in the second, the Penguins found another gear. Similar to the third periods in Games One and Two, the Penguins dominated play. For the opening 19:50 of the period, Vasilevskiy was brilliant in keeping the game tied. He stopped the first 20 shots he saw in the period, but he couldn't save the final one. Following an offensive zone turnover by the Lightning in the closing seconds, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin countered on a rush. Kessel's right circle shot led to a rebound goal for Hagelin. It was a gut-punch goal to allow - it came with just 10 seconds left in the period and gave the Penguins a lead going into the third.
The Penguins kept up the pressure in the third, firing 17 more shots on net. Early in the period, Tyler Johnson scored for the Lightning, a goal that came just 14 seconds after Kessel had extended the lead. But Crosby scored a dagger goal at the halfway point, converting during a four-on-three power play. Chris Kunitz added another a few minutes later and it was 4-1. A late Palat goal set the final at 4-2.
The Penguins were now up in the series, two games to one. Just as troubling for the Lightning was the fact that Pittsburgh had been, simply, the better team for most of Games Two and Three. The Lightning needed to change the narrative of the series.
From the opening faceoff of Game Four, the Lightning were ready. Ryan Callahan scored at the 27-second mark, tipping in a Victor Hedman point shot. Andrej Sustr added to the lead before the period ended, jumping into the play off the rush and converting a cross-ice pass from Nikita Kucherov at 14:28.
The score remained 2-0 for just over 20 minutes. At 14:38 of the second, Drouin attempted a pass to Palat from the side of the net. It was blocked and caromed back to him. Drouin finished the shot into an empty side of the net. The power play goal made it 3-0. Just over three minutes later, the Lightning scored again. Kucherov's cross-ice feed hit Johnson and deflected into the net. Johnson was wearing a full faceshield because during the pregame warmups, he had been hit with a puck in the mouth. Even though the injury would eventually require dental work, Johnson played the whole game.
The opening 40 minutes featured the best hockey that the Lightning had played to that point in the series. Through two periods, they owned a 4-0 lead and had recorded 30 shots. But the third period was a different story. Kessel scored just over a minute in, cutting the Lightning lead to 4-1, and from that point on, the Penguins took over. They popped in two more goals at 11:13 and 13:08. Suddenly, it was 4-3 and the Penguins still had plenty of time to tie it. They almost did. With just over two minutes left, Vasilevskiy made an eye-popping save on Evgeni Malkin to preserve the lead. The Lightning held on to tie the series.
Heading into Game Five, the story from the Pittsburgh side was that veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury would start. Fleury had replaced Murray for the third period of Game Four and had stopped all seven shots that he faced. Through the first two periods of Game Five, Fleury had a quiet time of it as the Penguins dictated play. In what was a disturbing trend for the Lightning, the Penguins scored two more goals in the final minute of a period. Dumoulin finished a rebound with less than one second left in the first and Kunitz jammed in a loose puck with 50 seconds remaining in the second.
The Kunitz goal stung because it came about five minutes after the Lightning had rallied from a 2-0 deficit. Killorn and Kucherov netted goals 70 seconds apart to tie the game. Due to the late Pittsburgh score, however, it was 3-2 after two periods.
More so than the first two periods, the third was evenly-played. As time wound down, the Lightning still trailed by one. Then, with just over three minutes remaining, Kucherov delivered the tying goal. Johnson threw a shot on net from the side boards. Fleury stopped the shot, but the rebound came directly to Kucherov at the side of the net. Before Fleury could move from post-to-post, Kucherov darted behind the net and stuffed in a wraparound.
In Game Two, the Penguins scored during the opening minute of overtime. In Game Five, the Lightning returned the favor. Kucherov set up Jason Garrison for a shot at the left circle. The puck deflected off of Johnson's back and into the net at 53 seconds of OT.
With the stunning comeback win, the Lightning had pushed Pittsburgh to the brink. Kucherov had a monster game, scoring twice, including the late tying goal. He added an assist on the OT winner. Johnson had received dental work during the off-day between games and was back to his regular half-shield. He scored for the third straight contest. Sustr had an impact on three of the four goals. He assisted on Killorn's tally. His entries into the offensive zone started the plays that led to Kucherov's first goal and Johnson's OT winner.
Facing elimination, the Penguins went back to Murray for Game Six. He played very well in the Penguins' 5-2 win, especially during the Lightning's furious third period comeback push. But prior to that, Game Six turned on two key plays. Close plays that tipped the balance for the rest of the night. With the game just over five minutes old, the Lightning thought they had scored the opening goal. Drouin finished a Palat centering feed. But the Pens challenged the play, contending that Drouin was offside. They won the challenge and the goal was taken off the board.
In writing this column, I found the highlight and watched the play again. Victor Hedman brings the puck into the offensive zone with Palat and Drouin on either side of him. As Hedman carries the puck into the offensive zone, Drouin is actually in an on-side position. In other words, his skates are not both across the blue line. His right skate barely beats Hedman and the puck. His left skate, behind him, is clearly in the neutral zone. But just as Hedman crosses the line, Drouin lifts up the back skate. That's what turns the play into an offside one. My two takeaways after reviewing it? One - it's so close. The back skate is only inches off the ice. Two - this has no bearing on the play because Drouin gives himself no positional advantage. But ultimately, it was offside and the Penguins correctly won the challenge.
The second play happened late in the period. With the game still scoreless, the Lightning were on the penalty kill. Hedman got the puck in his own zone and cleared it down the middle of the ice. But the puck sailed on him and went over the glass behind Murray. It was an unlucky break - the delay-of-game penalty put the Penguins on a long five-on-three. The Lightning killed off nearly a minute of the two-man disadvantage, but eventually allowed a goal to Kessel.
Those two plays set the narrative of Game Six in motion. The Pens added two more goals in the second, including a Crosby breakaway in the final minute (the fifth such goal the Lightning yielded in the series).
Just as the Penguins did in the third period of Game Four, though, the Lightning almost came back in Game Six. Brian Boyle got his team on the board when his centering feed deflected off Kessel and into the Pittsburgh net at 5:30. When Boyle scored again at 12:43, it was 3-2. But they wouldn't get another. Rust converted on a breakaway with 2:08 left and the Pens added an empty netter in the final minute.
In the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, the Lightning had lost Game Six at home before winning Game Seven on the road. Their 2-0 Game Seven performance was one for the ages, a virtuoso defensive effort. But they wouldn't be able to replicate it in 2016's Game Seven, even with the inspirational return of Steven Stamkos, who had been recovering from a blood clot. After a relatively quiet first period, the Pens, as they had done at points throughout the series, raised their level. Rust scored twice in the middle period, the second of those came 30 seconds after Drouin had tied the score. Shots in that decisive second period were 21-5 in favor of Pittsburgh. Rust's eventual game-winner came at 10:06 of the second, so the Lightning still had half a game to find the equalizer. But the Pens kept up the pressure and continued to own most of the possession time. Forced to defend, the Lightning struggled to generate shots and scoring chances. The Pens posted 39 shots in Game Seven and held the Lightning to just 17.
2015-16 was the Penguins' year, one that would end with a Stanley Cup Championship. They found their rhythm during the second half of the regular season and, like a locomotive gaining speed, hit their stride at the perfect time. In all seven of the games against the Lightning - win or lose - the Penguins enjoyed lengthy segments in which they decisively controlled play.
Having written all of that, the Eastern Conference Final almost went the other way. The Lightning were within a game of eliminating the Penguins. How did they do it? They scored key goals at critical times, especially in their three victories. They endured the loss of their starting goalie in Game One - we'll never know how the series might have looked if Bishop hadn't gotten hurt. But there's no question that Vasilevskiy was a difference-maker in the series. Whenever the Penguins were having one of their surges, Vasilevskiy helped minimize the damage.
In many ways, the 2016 Eastern Conference Final represented the passing of the torch from Bishop to Vasilevskiy. We didn't realize it at the time, but Game One of the 2016 ECF was Bishop's final postseason appearance with the Lightning. He would be traded during the 2016-17 season and Vasilevskiy took over the starter's role. It was in the Pittsburgh series that Vasy showed how capable he was of handling that position.
Taking the 2016 playoffs as a whole, a number of Lightning players enjoyed a tremendous postseason. Kucherov, Johnson, Killorn, Hedman, Palat, Boyle, and Callahan all scored big goals and made key plays. And the 2016 postseason was an important one for Jonathan Drouin. He finished with 14 points in 17 playoff games. Against Pittsburgh, he led the team with four goals. Following Drouin's strong 2016 postseason and productive 2016-17 regular season, the Lightning were able to acquire Mikhail Sergachev for Drouin in the summer of 2017.
Just like the 2014-15 team, the 2015-16 Lightning came close. They lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champs. But what they did accomplish was impressive. Dealing with significant injuries to Stamkos and Stralman, they won two rounds and came within a game of the Stanley Cup Final. In the end, thanks to their determined play and dramatic victories, they gave us all plenty of lasting memories.