TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper viewed Tuesday’s opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a good measuring stick for his team.
Instead, the 6-2 loss seemed more like a reality check.
Tuesday had all the makings of a memorable night. Amalie was at full capacity for the first time since before the pandemic, and a sellout crowd of 19,092 witnessed the Lightning’s second straight Stanley Cup banner raised to the rafters, something fans didn’t get to experience last opening night.
But with a national television audience watching, the Lightning kicked off a new NHL season with a performance that hardly resembled the team that won back-to-back Cups.
“In the end, they beat us to every puck, they worked harder than us, they were better than us in every facet of the game,” Cooper said. “If it wasn’t for our goalie, it probably would have been way worse. They came here to win a hockey game. We came here and watched the banner raising and and then watched a team want to win a hockey game.”
The Lightning struggled defensively, allowing Pittsburgh large swatches of open ice in front of the net, and couldn’t muster much offensively throughout the night. Even without their top two players — forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sidelined with injuries — the Penguins dominated puck possession and offensive-zone time.
By the time the Lightning got their first power-play opportunity with 7:04 left in the second period, they had just 11 shots on goal and only four from their forwards.
“I think they just out-competed us,” said forward Pat Maroon. “I don’t think we had a couple Grade-A’s, maybe towards the end. ... We didn’t really have zone time. We didn’t get pucks to our forwards and get pucks to the net.”
Pittsburgh’s first goal came on a rare mistake by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy during the first shift of the second period.
Vasilevskiy turned the puck over trying to clear it from behind the net, flicking it to Jeff Carter from below the goal line. Carter found Danton Heinen, who charged through the right circle uncovered and flicked the puck into an open net before Vasilevskiy could get back into position.
The Lightning again were slow afoot on Pittsburgh’s second goal, allowing former Tampa Bay forward Brian Boyle to sneak behind the defense on the left side. Sam Lafferty found Boyle from the blue line, and Boyle beat Vasilevskiy with a wrister to the goalie’s stickside 4:11 into the second.
The Penguins got an insurance goal with 8:28 left in the third on a seemingly harmless shot that Dominik Simon put on net, but it deflected off rookie Taylor Raddysh, who blocked Vasilevskiy’s line of sight.
With his team unable to do much, Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy with 6:12 left in the game down 3-0. With an extra attacker, Anthony Cirelli scored with 5:47 remaining. But the Penguins got the goal right back when Teddy Blueger scored into an empty net just 30 seconds later.
The sequence repeated itself a couple of minutes later, as Alex Killorn scored with Vasilevskiy on the Lightning bench with 3:11 to play only to have Evan Rodrigues and Bryan Rust score into the empty net shortly afterward.
Vasilevskiy kept the Lightning in the game early, foiling a pair of Penguins breakaways in a first period that saw him turn away all 14 Penguins shots. Vasilevskiy finished with 29 saves on 32 shots faced.
“He was our best player,” Cooper said. “But other than that, everybody was in the same boat.
“And it was a sinking boat.”
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