TAMPA — Watching the Lightning-Penguins showdown Thursday night in sold-out Amalie Arena, a couple of thoughts came to mind.
These might be the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
And wouldn't it be fun to see this matchup in a seven-game playoff series this spring?
The Lightning held on to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions 5-4 in a thrilling, bring-your-Rolaids kind of shootout in front of 19,092. Yes, it's only October. And yes, Pittsburgh was in the second of back-to-back games and playing its backup goalie.
But that didn't make this victory any less significant for Tampa Bay, which hadn't beaten Pittsburgh since the 2016 Eastern Conference final. The Lightning lost all three meetings last season, when it stunningly missed the playoffs.
"We just won a hockey game against the defending champs," coach Jon Cooper said. "So I think any coach would be happy to win the game."
For all the hype surrounding the Lightning season, Cooper believed this week's homestand — against the Capitals, Penguins and Blues on Saturday — would be a barometer. And to win the first two games, including Monday's 4-3 come-from-behind overtime win over Washington, could be the boost Tampa Bay needs to get off to the kind of strong start that was elusive the past two seasons.
"Those two teams, the Capitals and Penguins, are both teams we've always had a lot of trouble with in the past couple years," said Alex Killorn, who had a career-high four assists. "To get two wins at the beginning of the season against them in front of our home crowd, it's huge momentum. We want to keep going, keep building."
There was an unlikely hero for the Lightning, with defenseman Slater Koekkoek scoring his first two NHL goals, his second one the winner. Koekkoek, who played just three minutes Monday, scored on two of his three shots, the first a changeup shot from the point that got deflected by the Penguins' Tom Kuhnhackl. Koekkoek chuckled on his way back to the bench after the milestone goal.
"Someone was watching over me," he said, smiling. "I'll take it."
The usual suspects also came through for Tampa Bay (3-1-0). Steven Stamkos scored his first goal since mid-November knee surgery, fittingly a one-timer on a power play. Victor Hedman got a buzzer-beater, a goal with .1 seconds left in the first period that gave the Lightning the lead for good. Nikita Kucherov scored his fourth goal in as many games. And goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made sure the lead held up, stopping 36 of 40 shots.
Vasilevskiy's biggest save came midway through the third, with Tampa Bay clinging to a one-goal lead. Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel got free on a breakaway, but Vasilevskiy thwarted his five-hole attempts. "That was a game-saver for us," Stamkos said.
There are still plenty of things for the Lightning to improve on. As exciting as the pace Tampa Bay played with was, it can't consistently win if it gives up 40 shots a game.
"It seemed like it was game where there wasn't a whole lot of defense played on either side," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "There were a lot of Grade A scoring chances at both ends of the ice. It was one of those types of games. It was a track meet. It seemed like the last shot was going to win."
It was a track meet. And it is one many Lightning fans would no doubt like to see repeated in the spring.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Koekkoek 1 (Stralman, Kunitz), 6:07. 2, Pittsburgh, Guentzel 2 (Rust, Letang), 13:46. 3, Tampa Bay, Hedman 1 (Killorn, Kucherov), 19:59 (pp). Penalties—Girardi, TB, (tripping), 11:42; Reaves, PIT, (holding), 14:07; Letang, PIT, (delay of game), 18:39.
Second Period—4, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 1 (Killorn, Namestnikov), 3:49 (pp). 5, Pittsburgh, Sheary 3 (Ruhwedel, Niemi), 8:58. 6, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 4 (Coburn, Killorn), 9:49. 7, Pittsburgh, Rust 1 (Guentzel, Maatta), 14:24 (pp). 8, Tampa Bay, Koekkoek 2 (Johnson, Killorn), 17:55. Penalties—Rowney, PIT, (slashing), 3:37; Coburn, TB, (slashing), 6:05; Hagelin, PIT, (interference), 10:06; Dumont, TB, (tripping), 12:55; Koekkoek, TB, (interference), 15:45.
Third Period—9, Pittsburgh, Hunwick 1 (McKegg, Kessel), 10:01. Penalties—Johnson, TB, (interference), 2:14; Kessel, PIT, (slashing), 19:02. Shots on Goal—Pittsburgh 12-16-12—40. Tampa Bay 16-12-6—34. Power-play opportunities—Pittsburgh 1 of 5; Tampa Bay 2 of 5. Goalies—Pittsburgh, Niemi 0-2-0 (34 shots-29 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 3-1-0 (40-36). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:41.