TAMPA — We’ve seen this movie before, and far too often for this early in the season: The Lightning mostly outplay their opponent, only to wonder how they let two points slip away.
It happened again Thursday night in a 4-2 loss to the Penguins at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay carried the play for most of the game — it was fast and fluid and took an early two-goal lead. But two egregious turnovers put pucks on the sticks of Pittsburgh’s best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and both ended up in the back of the net.
From there, the Lightning faded. They had 29 shot attempts in the third period but nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, the Penguins capitalized on a 3-on-2 rush with Jeff Carter’s go-ahead goal, and Tampa Bay left embarrassed after Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry flung the puck down the ice for an empty-netter.
“We’re playing some of our better hockey in spurts,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Structurally, I think we’re playing some of our best hockey. That was probably the best hockey we played all year in the first period — smothering them skating, back-checking, it was the recipe.
“And then, just a couple plays that lead to chances for some really good players, and they make you pay and then it’s a whole different feel of the game and they gain some momentum. Another game where we get 40 shots and you don’t have any points to show for it.”
Inside the Lightning locker room after their second three-game regulation losing streak this month, head coach Jon Cooper didn’t waste time repeating himself.
“It’s tough, because the guys care,” Cooper said. I went into the locker room and basically (told) the guys, ‘I’ve given this speech eight times this year.’ And I asked them what the speech was, and they knew exactly what it was. If it was a structure thing or a work-ethic thing or something like that, but at times, we make crazy poor decisions, and every time we make it they end up in the back of the net.”
Getting away from what worked
As Stamkos said, the first period might have been the Lightning’s best of the season, especially during 5-on-5 play. They had 11 of the game’s first 13 shots and outshot the Penguins 17-5 in the period. They allowed just three shots on goal at 5-on-5, but more importantly they were getting back to the things that have made them successful at even strength.
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Stamkos scored on a deflection in front to open the scoring, just his fourth 5-on-5 goal this season. The Lightning were determined to create traffic in front of the net and take away Jarry’s line of sight. Tanner Jeannot’s power-play goal was a good example, as he and Anthony Cirelli crashed the net from opposite sides and Jeannot snuck the puck under Jarry for a 2-0 lead 12:33 into the game.
But the Lightning got away from that game plan and seemed to want to break the game open in open ice, trying to make dazzling passes that rarely connected. Instead of working to get more greasy goals in front, they were trying to be the greatest show on ice.
Two turnovers tilt the ice
Nikita Kucherov played a role in both Lightning goals with secondary assists, but his three giveaways were costly. Two turned a two-goal lead into a tied game during a second period that changed the momentum.
Kucherov lost the puck to Jake Guentzel at the offensive blue line, and Guentzel’s pass up ice sprung Crosby for a breakaway. Kucherov wasn’t completely at fault on the play, as Crosby pinched defenseman Nick Perbix along the boards, forcing him to make a sloppy pass that Kucherov couldn’t corral.
Kucherov’s second turnover was a complete brainfart. With less than a minute remaining in the second period, instead of pushing the puck deep he flung a wild, no-look pass toward Perbix at the point that went wide of the defenseman. Malkin collected it for a 2-on-1 breakaway and fed Drew O’ Connor at the back post for an easy tying goal.
Late push, but nothing to show for it
The Lightning were far from defeated entering the third, and even after Carter’s goal gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead less than three minutes into the period, it wasn’t an insurmountable hole. But in a game with few power plays, Tampa Bay had a man-advantage opportunity at 7:37 but managed just one shot on goal.
On Carter’s goal, three Lightning players were caught up in the offensive zone when Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson threaded a pass to Carter for a 3-on-2.
“You look at the stats and say Tampa outshot them 17-5 (in the third) and were leaning on them and were all over them,” Cooper said. “But what happened? We lost the period ... because we made a mistake over actually trying too hard.”
Cooper emptied his net for an extra attacker with 2:44 left, but over the next 1 minute, 36 seconds managed just one shot on goal before Jarry flung the puck from one net to the other with 68 seconds remaining, prompting Lightning fans to stream toward the exits.
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