PITTSBURGH — You’re going to see Saturday’s final score, a 5-2 Lightning loss, and think, "Here we go again."
Another lethargic start.
A bad game by backup goalie Peter Budaj.
A domination by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
You’d be wrong to think that.
The Lightning was better Saturday, especially in 5-on-5 play. The problem was, most of the game’s critical moments came on special teams. The Penguins scored three 5-on-3 power-play goals and a shorthanded goal.
"It was the difference in the game," coach Jon Cooper said. "I don’t know how many times you can come back from that."
It was a third loss in four games for the Lightning (16-5-2), which lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. It’s is the first taste of adversity for Tampa Bay, off to the best start in franchise history, a lull that was expected eventually.
There should be concern but not all-out panic.
"The first 17, 18 games, it was coming really easy for us," veteran defenseman Dan Girardi said. "We were scoring and making great plays. But we’re going to get the ‘A’ game from every team every night, being the top team in the league. That’s something we need to be ready for."
A lot of the breaks, fortunate bounces and calls the Lightning got in the first six weeks of the season aren’t going its way now. And the Lightning is mentally having a tough time handling it.
"We have to do a better job of not getting so frustrated," wing Alex Killorn said. "Things have gone our way for a little bit of time, the first quarter of the season. It seems like when things don’t go our way at the beginning, we get down on ourselves because we’re so used to scoring all the time."
That includes on the Lightning’s top-ranked power play, which squandered a four-minute man advantage for the second time in three games. This time Tampa Bay surrendered a momentum-swinging shorthanded goal. The Penguins’ Bryan Rust chipped a loose puck past pinching Mikhail Sergachev and cruised in for a breakaway goal.
"We have to be better," wing Nikita Kucherov said. "We didn’t execute."
Then came the Penguins’ two minutes of 5-on-3 late in the first period. You can question the calls, if you’d like. Sidney Crosby drew a four-minute high-sticking penalty on Cedric Paquette, and Anton Stralman’s tripping penalty was iffy. Still, the Lightning failed on two clearing attempts, and Pittsburgh made it pay with two goals on the 5-on-3, one by Phil Kessel, one by Crosby.
"We had pucks on our stick to clear and didn’t get it out," Cooper said. "If we get that one puck down, and who knows, maybe we kill this off. All of a sudden, it’s in the back of our net."
Crosby and Kessel each scored two goals, but the Lightning’s top players remained relatively quiet. Captain Steven Stamkos, other than a first-period breakaway, was a nonfactor. And Stamkos’ inability to corral a Victor Hedman pass in the slot helped lead to an odd-man rush for Kessel on Pittsburgh’s fourth goal. Kucherov looks — and sounds — frustrated, with one point (and no goals) in the past four games. Tyler Johnson’s goal drought extended to a career-high-matching 13 games. "We need to get some secondary scoring," Cooper said.
Ondrej Palat scored a power-play goal in the second and nearly had another when his one-timer ripped off the post. Cory Conacher, making his Lightning season debut after being called up last week, scored in the third. But it was too late.
The Lightning won’t have much time to regroup, facing Buffalo on Tuesday and Boston on Wednesday in another road back-to-back. "We’ve hit a speed bump here," Cooper said. "We’ve just got to snap our way out of it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, PIT, Rust 3 (Jarry), 14:36 (sh). 2, PIT, Kessel 10 (Crosby, Hornqvist), 18:03 (pp). 3, PIT, Crosby 8 (Schultz, Kessel), 19:26 (pp). Penalties—Guentzel, PIT, major (high sticking), 11:21; Paquette, TB, major (high sticking), 16:12; Stralman, TB, (tripping), 17:43.
Second Period—4, PIT, Kessel 11 (Sheahan), 2:22. 5, TB, Palat 7 (Sergachev, Gourde), 6:52 (pp). Penalties—Kessel, PIT, (slashing), 6:43; Hunwick, PIT, (tripping), 16:04.
Third Period—6, PIT, Crosby 9 (Kessel, Schultz), 4:41 (pp). 7, TB, Conacher 1 (Johnson, Killorn), 13:54. Penalties—Sergachev, TB, (interference), 3:31; Girardi, TB, (closing hand on the puck), 3:51; Hunwick, PIT, (interference), 10:33; Schultz, PIT, (slashing), 18:33. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 14-14-7—35. Pittsburgh 8-14-12—34. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 6; Pittsburgh 3 of 5. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Budaj 1-1-1 (34 shots-29 saves). Pittsburgh, Jarry 0-0-2 (35-33).