TAMPA — In Tuesday's game-winning and gut-punching goal, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby shrugged off Ondrej Palat, arguably the Lightning's best two-way forward, at the blueline.
Crosby then blew by Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay's top-pair defenseman, and Victor Hedman helplessly lunged out as Pittsburgh's star center beat goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The goal, with 26 seconds left in the second period, made it 3-0, the difference in the Lightning's 5-2 loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. That forces a Game 7 Thursday in Pittsburgh.
Crosby's goal was also fitting as the Penguins stars having outshined Tampa Bay's, one reason this series is still going.
While Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel scored, the Lightning's Triplets — Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov — along with Hedman and Stralman, were a combined minus-14.
"It wasn't our best game," Palat said. "You've got to be better. We have to step up."
And they have done so all postseason — Kucherov is second in the NHL with 11 goals, Johnson scored winners the previous two games and Hedman often has been a dominant 200-foot force. But Tampa Bay's only two goals Tuesday came from Brian Boyle, who cut the Penguins lead to one with seven minutes left in a furious, too-little, too-late rally.
The Lightning outshot Pittsburgh 19-8 in the third after mustering just 11 shots in the first 40 minutes.
"It seemed like we were playing like we didn't want to get beat," Boyle said. "Whatever it was, it wasn't what we needed to do."
Said Johnson: "We were too tentative in the first two periods, we let them do what they wanted. That's not the way we play."
The Lightning can lament how the game might have been different had Jonathan Drouin's goal five minutes in not been overturned on a coaches challenge for offside.
"Huge part of the game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We know we dodged a bullet."
But the bottom line is that the Lightning, facing 21-year-old rookie goaltender Matt Murray in his first NHL elimination game, was outshot 26-11 (47-29 in attempts) the first two periods. That put pressure on Vasilevskiy, who came one stop shy of his fifth 30-plus safe performance of the series.
"It could have been a lot worse than it was in the first 40," wing Ryan Callahan said. "He's definitely done his job."
So did the Penguins' big guns. Evgeni Malkin had guaranteed victory in Tuesday's game, and his teammates helped him walk the walk, Kessel scoring the game's first goal on 5-on-3 power play late in the first. Letang, a minus-4 in a Game 5 loss, scored eight minutes into the second.
"When your top guys lead the charge, everyone else follows suit," Sullivan said.
The Lightning is in the same position as last year's East final, having failed to close in Game 6 at home after a Game 5 road victory, needing a Game 7 to advance. This time, however, injured Ben Bishop isn't likely to be available, meaning Vasilevskiy — who has been impressive but still has allowed three or more goals in all five starts — will get his first taste of a Game 7.
"They volleyed the ball into our court," coach Jon Cooper said. "Now it's time for us to smash it back."
Contact Joe Smith at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Pittsburgh, Kessel 9 (Crosby, Malkin), 18:46 (pp). Penalties—Malkin, Pit (slashing), 14:20; Stralman, TB (interference), 17:09; Hedman, TB (delay of game), 17:50.
Second Period—2, Pittsburgh, Letang 2 (Sheary, Bonino), 7:40. 3, Pittsburgh, Crosby 6, 19:34. Penalty—Palat, TB (slashing), 10:06.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Boyle 4, 5:30. 5, Tampa Bay, Boyle 5 (Koekoek, Drouin), 12:43. 6, Pittsburgh, Rust 3 (Kunitz, Maatta), 17:52. 7, Pittsburgh, Bonino 3 (Lovejoy), 19:06 (en). Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—Pittsburgh 14-12-8—34. Tampa Bay 4-7-20—31. Power-play opportunities—Pittsburgh 1 of 3; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Pittsburgh, Murray 10-4 (31 shots-29 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 3-3 (33-29). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:41. Referees—Gord Dwyer, Dan O'Halloran. Linesmen—Michel Cormier, Steve Miller.