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Lightning show plenty of fight, little else in loss to Penguins

Tampa Bay falls behind early and things only get worse from there, snapping its five-game win streak.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) mixes it up with Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Bryan Rust (17) as a scrum breaks out in front of the Penguins net toward the end of the second period Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) mixes it up with Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Bryan Rust (17) as a scrum breaks out in front of the Penguins net toward the end of the second period Thursday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 4|Updated Mar. 4

TAMPA — This Lightning team can do many things. It can come back from slow starts. It can rebound from tough losses. It can shine on the biggest stages.

But it hasn’t found a way to beat the Penguins at Amalie Arena. Two of the Lightning’s five home regulation losses this season have come to Pittsburgh with Thursday night’s lopsided 5-1 defeat.

The Lightning (35-12-6) talked about the first one — the Penguins spoiled the Lightning’s Stanley Cup banner raising on opening night with a 6-2 win — entering Thursday’s contest. Pittsburgh was still better in all facets of the game Thursday in snapping Tampa Bay’s five-game winning streak.

“They outplayed us, start to finish,” said coach Jon Cooper, who was ejected for abuse of an official in the second period. “It was a really bad start. We’ve had some bad starts … but this is on us. It’s on us as a staff and on the players as well. But Pittsburgh was exceptional.”

The Lightning showed fire and fight. They threw fists and foul language, but none of it helped in coming back from a second straight two-goal first-period deficit.

“They gave it to us,” forward Pat Maroon said. “It’s hard to play from behind in this league, especially against a good team like Pittsburgh. They come with a lot of pace. They kind of play like us.

“They’re a good team over there, and what we do a lot to a lot of teams this year, they did that to us.”

In going up 2-0, the Penguins — who entered the game leading the NHL in road wins and points percentage — recorded 13 of the game’s first 15 shots. Tampa Bay not only struggled with Pittsburgh’s speed, it was challenged just to get the puck.

“For us, it’s all about how we play with the puck,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “And when you don’t have the puck, it felt like we were chasing the puck a little too much. And once we got the puck, we did not get sustained pressure.”

In an opening period that saw Pittsburgh take 31 shot attempts (16 on goal), the biggest spark Tampa Bay got was from Brayden Point’s flying fists when he fought Penguins defenseman Kris Letang late in the period.

Lightning center Brayden Point (21) fights Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) during the first period.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) fights Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) during the first period. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The “School Bus Line,” the only Tampa Bay line to get sustained zone time, scored the Lightning’s lone goal, by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 6:20 into the second period.

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A late second-period scrum prompted by Penguins defenseman Mark Friedman taking down Corey Perry from behind in the crease resulted in a 5-on-3 Pittsburgh power play. The incident drew the ire of Cooper, who said enough curse words to referee Wes McCauley to draw a game misconduct penalty and ejection.

It was the first career ejection for Cooper, who was the first NHL head coach to be ejected for abuse of an official since 2018, according to Sportsnet Stats.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper heads to the locker room after picking up a game misconduct penalty for abuse of an official near the end of the second period.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper heads to the locker room after picking up a game misconduct penalty for abuse of an official near the end of the second period. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Cooper said he was given no explanation for why Tampa Bay was a man down but Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan was.

“I’m just not so sure, in all the years, what I said was something (McCauley has) never heard before in his history of reffing,” Cooper said. “So I want to know what that was. And it is a head coach’s duty to coach the game, and at times you get a little emotional.”

Cooper clearly was frustrated not only by his team’s play but also the lack of calls against the Penguins.

“I was shocked that we were shorthanded (late in the second period),” Cooper said. “That team, for some reason, they’re by far the lowest-penalized team in the league. I’m not sure why, but they are. For us to go down again, to be short in that situation, was a little frustrating.”

The Lightning killed off the 5-on-3 but then began to spring leaks, allowing a pair of breakaway goals by Brock McGinn and Evgeni Malkin. After Malkin’s goal 5:14 into the third period put Pittsburgh ahead 4-1, chants of “Lets go Pens” filled Amalie Arena. Jake Guentzel’s empty-netter with six minutes left added insurance.

The Lightning, who haven’t lost consecutive regulation games all season, have a chance to turn the page quickly. They face the Red Wings at home tonight.

“You’re playing pretty much playoff hockey from the next two months here and all the way till July,” Maroon said. “So this is the fun time right now. Everyone’s going to have their A game. Everyone’s trying to make the playoffs.

“So these are the times where you’ve got to be a man. You’ve got to be aggressive. You got to find ways to play that hard-nosed hockey in guys’ faces. … And (the Penguins) did that.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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