Stars Beginning to Align; Pens Finding Their Stride
Sidney Crosby scored his first career playoff overtime goal in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday night.
He added the game winner in the third period of Game 3 last night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fl.
After a sub-par performance throughout the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Washington Capitals, the Penguins’ captain is beginning to assert himself.
That spells bad news for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Because to go along with Crosby’s power-play OT winner, Phil Kessel added a goal and an assist and was arguably the Pens’ best player in Game 3. Evgeni Malkin was creating opportunities for himself and his new linemates, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary.
Those three could be on the verge of taking over what remains of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Getting in Gear
The first eight minutes of Game 3 between the Pens and Lightning were your usual “beginning-of-a-third-game-of-a-playoff-series” eight minutes. The home team, Tampa Bay, came out with energy and speed. The home crowd roaring at every rush up the ice.
Pittsburgh withstood it, as they knew they would have to in order to be successful. By the end of the first period, the Penguins had begun to control the game. Overall, the opening stanza was played on pretty even terms.
For some inexplicable reason, under Mike Sullivan, the Pens have owned the majority of their second periods this season. Last night was no exception.
The Penguins out-shot Tampa Bay 21-6 in the middle frame, and would finish two periods with a 31-18 edge in the shot department.
That speaks volumes to the Pens’ puck possession.
Despite the nearly 2-1 advantage in shots, Pittsburgh found themselves up only one goal at the end of the second period.
It may have taken two-plus games to get going, but go is precisely what these Penguins did in the third period.
After his pass off the pads to Carl Hagelin for the opening tally with just 10 seconds left in the second, Kessel gave the Penguins a two-goal lead at 5:16 of the final frame.
Yet for everything the Penguins did right last night, poor defensive coverage by Malkin and Kris Letang allowed the Lightning to get right back into it when Tyler Johnson made it a nail-biter just 14 seconds after the Kessel marker.
Despite Tampa Bay cutting the lead in half, they couldn’t overcome the superior speed and forecheck of the Penguins.
Crosby would add his power-play goal after Braydon Coburn elbowed Hagelin in the neutral zone, and Chris Kunitz would put the proverbial icing on the cake for Pittsburgh with his second of the postseason.
After the game, Nick Bonino would tell the NHL Network’s Billy Jaffe that this was close to being the most complete game the Pens have played in these playoffs. A sentiment shared by players, coaches and media alike.
Putting it all Together
Surprisingly, many in the Penguins’ organization felt that they (the Pens) were the better team in Game 1 of the Conference Final last Friday night.
This is not a sentiment shared by anyone outside of the Pittsburgh locker room.
Game 1 was an absolute dud for the Penguins. And who could blame them? After an emotional Game 6 win over the Presidents’ Trophy winners (not to mention arch-nemesis, the Washington Capitals), there was sure to be a let down of some magnitude. Pittsburgh laid an egg according to almost anyone who witnessed it. Yet the Penguins’ young netminder Matt Murray told NBCSN’s Pierre McGuire last night that he felt Pittsburgh deserved to win Game 1, that they were the better team last Friday night.
Game 2 started quickly for the Pens. They jumped out to an early two-goal lead thanks to Kessel and Matt Cullen providing the markers.
Murray would allow the Lightning to knot matters at two on a pair of soft goals by notorious Penguins-killer Anton Stralman (in his first action in nearly two months after suffering a broken leg), and rookie phenom Jonathan Drouin.
Pittsburgh would carry the majority of the play throughout Game 2, including all 40 seconds of overtime where Tampa Bay never even entered the Penguins’ zone with puck possession.
The Penguins are starting to roll again. All four lines are seeing the ice. All six defensemen are playing key roles, and the new pairings (in light of Olli Maatta being replaced by Justin Schultz) seem to be meshing nicely.
They’ve had two separate three-game winning streaks in these playoffs. After splitting with the Rangers in Pittsburgh, the Pens went on to win three straight, eliminating New York in five games.
They would lose Game 1 of the Conference semis to the Caps before reeling off three straight again and putting Washington on the brink of elimination.
The Pens are now poised to record their third three-game winning streak of this postseason, when they play Game 4 on Friday night in Tampa Bay.
If Game 3 is any indication, Pittsburgh will be looking for its first four-game winning streak when the Eastern Conference Final returns to Consol Energy Center on Sunday.
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