The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Achilles heel all season long has been turning the puck over.
The Pittsburgh Penguins exposed their weakness Monday night, as centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby picked up game-tying and go-ahead goals off of two separate Lightning turnovers in a matter of minutes in the third period to help win the game 4-3.
Malkin (5) scored first on a highlight-reel goal where he took a Lightning turnover and broke through two defenders to beat goaltender Anders Lindback stick side.
Crosby (11)scored hardly more than two minutes later when defenseman Kris Letang patiently circled the Tampa Bay net to find Crosby waiting on the wing for an easy one-time goal.
A game that had seen the Lightning lead 2-1 just minutes before had become 3-2 Penguins in a matter of minutes.
After Mathieu Garon was forced to leave the game with an undisclosed injury early in the second period, it seemed every time the Lightning turned the puck over, it wound up in the back of their net.
Lindback looked uncomfortable after not playing in over a week, and he couldn’t match the incredible goaltending that Garon had provided early on, making 12 of 13 saves to start the game.
Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz (12) had scored the lone goal on Garon just 04:13 into the first, receiving a pass from Crosby — who had deftly maneuvered around the entire Lightning defense to set up Kunitz — and burying a one-timer over Garon’s left shoulder to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead.
The Lightning did show fight, killing all three Pittsburgh power plays in the game and not allowing the NHL’s top-ranked power play unit to score.
However, Garon’s performance in net was what kept the Bolts in the game early on.
Lindback struggled upon entry, allowing a puck to nearly trickle across the line and a shot to hit the goal post in a matter of minutes.
However, the Lightning tied the game almost immediately following Garon’s departure when center Steven Stamkos scored his NHL-leading 16th goal by crashing the net on an offensive break and deflecting home defenseman Victor Hedman’s pass.
The Lightning temporarily took the lead into the third when center Tom Pyatt (5) used his head to beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Center Nate Thompson tried to throw the puck at Fleury, hitting and bloodying Pyatt’s nose in the process before the puck fluttered through the air and into the net.
However, the lead didn’t last, as Malkin’s and Crosby’s goals flipped the scoreboard in the first half of the third.
Each team added a goal in garbage time, an empty-netter for Pittsburgh forward James Neal (14) and a too-little-too-late goal from Stamkos (17), to set the final score at 4-3.
With Tampa Bay one game away from losing all four games of its road trip, Bolts Nation should be in panic mode. A team that opened the season winning six of its first seven games has fallen to 13th in the Eastern Conference, losers of 12 of their last 15.
Not only that, but they have done all this in spite of leading the NHL in scoring for most of the season and possessing the NHL’s leading goal scorer in Steven Stamkos.
If the Bolts don’t turn it around soon, this shortened season will be down the drain, and coach Guy Boucher’s job may be in the can.
Things don’t get any easier, meanwhile, as Tampa Bay must head to New Jersey for the second game of a back-to-back Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils. The Lightning have about 21 hours to travel, rest and prepare for the game’s puck drop at 7 p.m. ET.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has a five-point lead over New Jersey in the Atlantic Division and gets to rest until Thursday night, when they take on the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia at 7 p.m. ET.
The Bolts may have come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Penguins in the playoffs almost three years ago, but these are two teams trending in opposite directions right now and things don’t look good for Tampa Bay.
At least they’re playing close games, right?
- Lightning forward Ondrej Palat picked up an assist in his first career NHL game after being called up to replace the injured Benoit Pouliot.
- The Lightning were in a fighting mood Monday night. Forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie dropped the gloves (yet again) with Pittsburgh defenseman Deryk Engelland and forward Martin St. Louis nearly had a fight with Engelland as well. St. Louis has never had a fighting major, according to hockeyfights.com