I don’t think that was the kind of game anyone expected. Instead of watching two fast teams put on a display of skill and push the pace up and down the ice, we saw a number of key players leave it as the result of ugly plays. Just 2:50 into the game, Ryan Callahan drove Kris Letang’s head into the boards from behind and received a five-minute major on the play. Letang remained down for a few minutes and was eventually able to skate off on his own. Fortunately, he was able to return with 7:35 left – as Ben Bishop was being attended to by medical staff after getting injured when he fell awkwardly onto his left leg. The Vezina Trophy finalist eventually had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher to a standing ovation from Pens fans, and was replaced by Andrei Vasilevskiy. The opening period finished the way it started, when Tyler Johnson was injured with less than a minute to play after his knee got caught up with Chris Kunitz’s as the Pens forward finished his check. The Bolts forward returned about halfway through the second. With a few minutes left to play, another Pens defenseman was sent into the boards from behind when Brian Dumoulin had to be assisted off the ice after getting hit by Ondrej Palat.
On Thursday, Johnson was asked about how the teams match up in term of speed. “You can say it’s going to be tons of speed, but both teams might be structurally on top to slow each other down,” he said. “I guess we’ll have to see how Game 1 goes.” Well, he was right. The Pens didn’t have their best game, thanks in large part to how the Lightning limited them. Tampa Bay was so strong defensively. They blocked shots, had people in lanes and didn’t give them a lot of room to work with. When the Pens did get their chances – which they had a decent amount of – they just couldn’t bear down and convert them. Conversely, the Pens were decent defensively as well – but the chances they did give up were high-quality ones. As head coach Mike Sullivan said, “That’s what we discussed with our players after the game, is we have to make better decisions with the puck in some of the key areas of the rink.”
This area had the most noticeable impact on the scoresheet. The Pens’ power play, which broke through with two goals against Washington in Game 6 of the second round, didn’t carry much momentum in the third round. They had an absolutely golden opportunity early in the game with that five-minute major, but didn’t generate much of anything on it and I felt they didn’t have nearly enough urgency. The aggressive Bolts kept them on the perimeter, which means the Pens had trouble putting pucks on net and didn’t create second and third opportunities. They did get better as the game went along, with Evgeni Malkin shooting everything and anything – and finally got a goal late in the second period. But was almost too little, too late. Overall, they went 1-for-4 with 9:16 of time to work with. There were a lot of positives with the Pens’ penalty kill, as Carl Hagelin did a tremendous job of clearing pucks and chasing them down. But one long rebound ended up in the back of their net.