Tampa Bay was flying high as it entered Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center for the final meeting of the 2014-15 regular season against the Penguins.
The Lightning had won four consecutive games and thoroughly dominated the Sabres in Buffalo two nights earlier. The Bolts began the new year with a one-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and a two-point advantage for first place in the Atlantic.
But, Pittsburgh again proved to be the Bolts’ nemesis, the Lightning dropping their ninth-straight regular season game in the Steel City following a 6-3 loss on Friday.
What happened? Here are three ways the Lightning faltered.
1. Downie’s dagger was the difference
After falling behind 3-0 within the first 14 minutes of the opening puck drop, Tampa Bay finally found its footing in the game and battled back.
In fact, over the final two periods, the Lightning were the better team.
When Alex Killorn brought the Bolts within a goal at 4-3 midway through the third period, it appeared the Lightning had the resolve to complete the rally and take a point, maybe even two from the Penguins.
But, 34 seconds after Killorn gave Tampa Bay hope, former Lightning forward Steve Downie quickly dashed it. Downie received the puck in the slot from Sidney Crosby, faked a shot to send Victor Hedman sprawling to the ice then calmly put his shot over Bolts goalie Evgeni Nabokov and off and under the crossbar to regain the Penguins’ two-goal lead.
At that point, any momentum the Lightning had gained was gone. The Bolts didn’t have the resolve to engineer another two-goal comeback, and the Penguins’ mastery of the Lightning in Pittsburgh continued.
“We’ve got all the momentum in the world going on, and we have a shift like that and it’s 5-3 and it’s pretty much nail in the coffin,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper lamented after the game.
2. The Lightning defense was lacking
Over the month of December, the Tampa Bay defense had strengthened considerably from earlier in the season.
The Bolts’ goals allowed average through October and November was 2.58, the Lightning giving up 62 regulation/overtime goals through 24 games.
In December, the Bolts’ GAA dropped to 2.27 (34 goals in 15 games).
The Lightning had made a concerted effort to reduce its goals allowed number as the season progressed although the team hadn’t been rewarded for it, going 8-5-2 -- their worst month to date -- because of their own inability to put the puck in the net.
Against Pittsburgh on Friday, the Lightning defense took a step back.
On the Penguins’ second goal, Andrew Ebbett was able to skate into the slot unopposed to backhand a rebound from Evgeni Malkin’s shot off the post past Ben Bishop.
Malkin’s goal that made it 3-0 Pittsburgh was the result of a bad giveaway at the blue line by Steven Stamkos.
And on Pittsburgh’s fifth and decisive goal, Downie was able to receive Crosby’s pass in the slot with four Lightning skaters surrounding him yet none able to dispossess him of the puck.
The Lightning stumbled defensively in Pittsburgh. Here’s hoping the performance was just a one-game anomaly rather than the start of a trend.
3. Weird things happen in Pittsburgh
For whatever reason this season, whenever the Lightning travel to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins, strange occurrences happen during the game.
Perhaps that can partly explain the Bolts’ futility in the Steel City.
In their first trip to Pittsburgh, the Lightning started extremely well, taking the game to the Penguins for the majority of the opening period before a fluke goal that deflected off the knob of Bishop’s stick gave the Penguins an undeserved 1-0 lead.
Seconds earlier, Bishop had suffered a lower-body injury and decided to gut it out for the final 1:15 of the first period, but the Bolts’ starting goalie had to leave the game after the first intermission.
On Friday, the unusual again occurred in Pittsburgh. The Penguins’ second score was aided by the goal horn, which incorrectly went off after Malkin’s initial shot hit the post. With the play still live and the horn still blaring, Ebbett swooped in to bury the rebound on a score that left the Bolts’ scratching their heads.
“Regardless of if that horn goes off, we still made dumb plays,” Cooper said.
Later in the period, referee Mike Leggo threw up in the corner during a stoppage in play, prompting a delay while Leggo headed for the locker room and the ice was cleaned.
Soon after, Pittsburgh scored goal number three.
And at that point, most Lightning fans probably felt a bit like Leggo.