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Three things from demolishing Pittsburgh

For the second time in 10 days, the Bolts offense lights up the Penguins

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Saturday's matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins was billed as a potential preview of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final.

The Penguins have won the last two Stanley Cups.

The Lightning have emerged, at least early in 2017-18, as the leading contender to dethrone the Pens in the East.

If Saturday's result is any indication, the Lightning could be headed for a special season.

Tampa Bay scored early and often in a 7-1 bludgeoning of the Penguins, who were playing the second half of a back-to-back and starting their backup goaltender.

Still, the Pens have superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel and a host of other really good players on their roster, and the Lightning just defeated them by six goals, tied for the third-largest margin of victory all-time in Bolts history.

As the first team to reach 15 points, Tampa Bay remains the top team in the NHL standings.

How were the Lightning able to beat the Penguins so badly?

We'll take a closer look in Three Things from demolishing the Pens.

1. TWO-GOAL SWING

Near the end of the first period trailing 2-0, Pittsburgh had a chance to get back in the game and get on the board.

A cross-crease feed to a wide-open Carl Hagelin on the back post appeared to be an easy tap in for Hagelin.

Except Andrei Vasilevskiy read the setup and scooted over to his left in time to deny Hagelin with an unbelievable robbery.

Then, seconds later and right before the end of the first period, Yanni Gourde stole the puck at the Penguins' blue line to give the Bolts' one final scoring chance before the end of the period and followed Braydon Coburn's shot from the point with a rebound backhand past Pens goalie Antti Niemi with 0.2 seconds remaining.

Video: PIT@TBL: Gourde puts in rebound before time expires

"That's a huge swing point in the game in my opinion," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "It was 2-0 at the time. They get one at the end, they get the momentum, it's 2-1 going in, it's a different game. That's what Vasy can do. It's why he's one of the best in the league. He makes a huge save, we go down, don't give up on the play, get a goal and that just pretty much for better purposes probably ended the game, 3-0 at home, usually you want to close those down."

That two-goal swing was effectively the end of the Penguins' night. Brayden Point would score 30 seconds into the second period and the rout was on.

2. DEFENSIVE CONTINUES TO IMPROVE

Putting up seven goals on the defending Stanley Cup champions is a pretty big deal.

But maybe bigger than the proficiency with which the Lightning are scoring, defensively, the Bolts are improving each time they take the ice.

On Thursday, Tampa Bay put together its best defensive effort of the season, holding a really good Columbus team without a goal in a 2-0 shutout.

Against Pittsburgh, the Lightning's strong defensive play carried over.

Video: PIT@TBL: Vasilevskiy extends arm to deny Hagelin

The Bolts held Crosby and Malkin in check, keeping both off the scoresheet for the second time this season. And they limited the number of prime scoring chances for Pittsburgh to basically zero.

"We aren't giving up as many scoring chances, and we are playing much better defensively now," Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said following his 28-save performance.

Nine days ago when the Lightning rallied to defeat the Penguins 5-4 at AMALIE Arena, the Bolts got into a track meet with the Pens, the two teams going up and down the ice and creating multiple scoring chances both ways.

On Saturday, it was the Lightning creating the bulk of the scoring chances.

And they did it by focusing on their end of the ice first and playing a sound defensive game.

"We cut the scoring chances in half against from the first time we played them to tonight," Cooper said. "That's us maturing as a team."

3. POWER PLAY SPARKS OFFENSIVE EXPLOSION

The Penguins were playing the second half of a back-to-back and the final game of a three-game road trip, so it was imperative the Lightning get off to a good start to demoralize the Pens early and make it that much more difficult for them.

Less than a minute into the game, Tampa Bay was handed a power play when Sidney Crosby went to the penalty box for cross-checking, and the Lightning took advantage immediately, Nikita Kucherov scoring with a flick of the wrist from the top of the right circle 39 seconds into the man-advantage for a 1-0 Lightning lead.

Video: PIT@TBL: Kucherov sweeps in PPG to open scoring

On the Bolts' second power play, a beautiful passing sequence between Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov and Stamkos produced the second goal of the night.

"Special teams are so huge in the game now," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "With the amount of penalties that get called, penalty killing and power play, usually if you win that battle, you've got a really good chance of winning the game. Our penalty kill's been good, and, obviously, our power play has been really good of late. Against a tough team like that to get a quick 2-0 lead coming off their back-to-back, that was really important and our power play did that for us."

The Bolts would score one more power-play goal, Mikhail Sergachev tallying his third goal in the last two games midway through the third period.

Tampa Bay netted three power-play goals for the first time this season.

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