TAMPA — As the Lightning bench emptied and gathered around Yanni Gourde to celebrate his drought-breaking, game-winning overtime goal Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, two players stayed behind.
Ondrej Palat and Mikhail Sergachev were still bent over, gasping for air after finishing a two-minute shift of three-on-three hockey only seconds before. Gourde was the hero in the 2-1 win over Pittsburgh, but the goal doesn’t happen without Palat, Sergachev and Mitchell Stephens getting through that shift.
“That was definitely a M.A.S.H. unit tonight,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It seemed like a six-minute shift that Stevie, Sergy and Pally were on for. They gut it out and we got rewarded in the end.”
The average shift in hockey spans 30 seconds to a minute depending on the player. Defensemen generally play longer shifts, but in three-on-three they typically stay close 30 seconds or less.
The overtime started with a 23-second shift for Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson. At the first whistle, they headed for the bench.
Palat, Stephens and Sergachev came on for the next shift and couldn’t get out of their own zone, which was at the opposite end of the ice from the Lightning bench.
A two-minute overtime shift doesn’t exist in a bubble. The Lightning were playing their second overtime in as many nights. They had played two periods without Anthony Cirelli and the third without Nikita Kucherov. This team was tired going into the overtime.
Sergachev played an 84-second shift to finish out regulation; Stephens 54 seconds. Then came the five-minute mini-intermission that’s long enough to catch your breath and not enough to recover.
Even early in the overtime shift, exhaustion showed on Stephens’ face as he prepared to take a faceoff.
What made the shift most impressive, however, was as much it’s effectiveness as the length. The Lightning trio faced the Penguins’ most potent offensive threats and, even as they started lagging, did not yield.
Sidney Crosby (who averages 1.5 points per game), Jared McCann and Kris Letang had a minute of zone time and without a shot on goal. They were forced to continually cycle without a lane to the net.
Sergachev stayed with Crosby, further evidence of the trust coaches have in the 21-year-old defenseman, and disrupted a pass from McCann as Crosby tried to crash the net.
The Penguins changed lines and brought out Evgeni Malkin (1.4 points per game), Bryan Rust (1.1) and Justin Schultz. That combination managed one shot: Malkin put the puck on Andrei Vasilevskiy while Sergachev tied up Rust, so he couldn’t go after the rebound.
As the shift dragged on, Lightning skaters slowed considerably and stayed closer to the net, clogging lanes and conserving energy. They started doing more gliding than skating.
Then, just as Fox Sports Sun color analyst Brian Engblom commented that Sergachev had nothing left to give, the defenseman took the puck away from Malkin to spring himself and Palat.
In the clearest evidence of exhaustion, Sergachev forfeited the two-on-one chance. He gave Palat the puck and went to the bench. Palat passed to the now fresh Hedman while Stephens changed for Brayden Point and then headed off the ice himself.
Enter Gourde, who scored 10 seconds later.
Sergachev, Stephens and Palat don’t show up on the scoresheet, but deserve just as much credit for setting up the game-winning goal.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.