Lightning defy the odds and seize the series advantage.
Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Leads the Series 3-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 34 shots for the victory. As with all of his other games in this series, he gave his team a chance and they eventually justified all of his efforts with the comeback win. Now that we've moved past the pivotal Game Five, all talk of Bishop playing in this series needs to be shut down. Ben might go back in for the Stanley Cup Final if the Lightning can close this series out, but for this Eastern Conference Finals series it needs to be Vasilevskiy's crease from here on out.
19:59 PIT Dumoulin(1), (Rust, Kunitz)
1:30 PIT Hornqvist(7), (Hagelin, Maatta)
13:15 TB Killorn(5), (Sustr)
14:25 TB Kucherov(10), (Namestnikov)
19:10 PIT Kunitz(4), (Malkin)
16:44 TB Kucherov(11), (Johnson, Palat)
0:53 TB Johnson(7), (Garrison, Kucherov)
Once again, the Lightning showed championship caliber heart and resiliency coming up off the canvas twice in this game to win in Overtime and take a 3-2 series lead. The team gave away late and early period goals at the end of the First Period and the start of the Second Period and again at the end of the Second Period. A lesser team would've folded under those circumstances, especially given Pittsburgh came into this game with a 46-0-0 record this season when leading after two periods. And, in the final frame, there were times the Lightning looked like they were absolutely running out of gas. This series has been a long grind already. This was not artful or textbook, and the Lightning have a long way to go and a lot of heavy lifting left to do to close this series. But, once again, with their Vezina candidate goaltender and leading regular season goal scorer on the shelf, they did not blink in the big moments and they did not shrink from the challenge.
Tampa Bay was outshot 34-25 in this game, but that didn't tell the whole possession story with the Lightning having 56 shot attempts and Pittsburgh having 54. The zone time in this game was about even. The chances were about even. The energy, up until a few moments in the Third Period when I thought they were starting to get gassed, was about even. That, it's important to note, is exceptional in a road game considering how well Pittsburgh plays in their own barn. I don't think either team's defense can handle the speed and skill of the opposing team, so possession is everything in this series. The more you can generate in the other team's zone, the less your own defense will be exposed. Opportunism and goaltending then often become the margin of victory in tight games like these, and they were the margin again tonight.
Pittsburgh will live to regret playing M.A. Fleury tonight. They will. After being staked to a 2-0 lead, Pittsburgh was an eyelash from making it 3-0 on the power play and the Lightning were teetering on the edge of being blown out. And then Alex Killorn sizzled a shot from the LW boards from a fairly bad angle that rifled short side over Fleury's shoulder. Was it a great shot? Sure. Is that a goal that Fleury can allow in that situation? Absolutely not. He gave oxygen to Tampa Bay and Kucherov tied the game shortly thereafter. The Penguins managed to restake him to a lead at the end of the Second Period, but it was pretty obvious down the stretch of the game that Fleury was the weak link on the ice for Pittsburgh with not one but three near soft goals including a long shot off the rush by Callahan that was an eyelash away from tying the game before Kucherov's eventual tying goal on a wrap around. I was amazed by the northern hockey media's rubber stamping of Sullivan's gamble to put Fleury in for this pivotal Game Five. This guy hasn't started a game in over a month and, frankly, he's never been that good to begin with, especially against the Lightning. He's liable to give up a soft goal or two even when he's in rhythm and sharp. With a long layoff? It was a big gamble and it blew up in Pittsburgh's face tonight, and I wouldn't be shocked if Sullivan goes back to Murray in a panic move to try to correct the panic move he made tonight.
This series moves back to Tampa now for a Game Six encounter that the Lightning would do well to treat with the intensity and urgency of a must-win game. Heck, I'd treat Tuesday's game as if it was an elimination game for the Lightning, not the Penguins. Neither team has the ability to shut down the other and the games are literally coming down to who outworks who for possession and whose goaltender makes the key saves in key moments or not. So, let's not be foolish enough to think there's a lot of hard work left to complete before Tampa Bay can punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup Final again. Tonight was an exciting win, but the team can't afford to relax an iota before there's a handshake line to be joined.
As an aside, the laughable officiating took an even uglier turn tonight in the game as even media commentators were forced to publicly speak out about the blatant penalties that Pittsburgh was being allowed to get away with. Seeking the tying goal in the Third Period, Slater Koekkoek was both bloodied by a high stick and tripped in broad daylight on the same shift. By all rights the Lightning should have been awarded a 5-on-3 power play (I have no doubt Pittsburgh would have if the skate was on the other foot) but the referees looked the other way on the second infraction. Later in the period Kucherov was hit with a high stick in front of the Lightning bench in broad daylight. No call. Later still in the period Koekkoek was tripped again trying to make a breakout pass wheeling out of the corner behind his net. No call. I'm not going to sit here and tell you the referees haven't pocketed their whistles on a few Lightning infractions too in this series. There was a haul down of Rust on the rush just before the second time Koekkoek was tripped. But, the bigger point is that some of the non-calls in the last two games absolutely could have swung the game and the series to Pittsburgh. The high stick on Hedman leading to the Fehr breakaway in Game Four was a travesty and the refusal to correctly call the trip on Koekkoek on top of the high stick may have cost the Lightning Game Five. Others might argue the uncalled can opener on Tyler Johnson in OT of Game Two absolutely did cost the Lightning the game. The league ought to be seriously ashamed of the appearance of gross impropriety in this series and some of the uncalled infractions in this series ought to be grounds for disciplining officials. They just ought to be. Period, point blank.
Koekkoek had 2 shots and 2 hits in 10:17 tonight. He's not getting a ton of shifts, but the ones he's getting are impactful in the offensive zone. Credit to the coaching staff that they have given the green light to Slater, who is a little bit of a Hedman Lite in my opinion, and he was very good tonight at joining the attack and keeping plays going in the offensive zone tonight. The other beauty of Koekkoek at the moment is that he's one of the guys who still has fresh legs as the grind of the postseason is starting to catch up with the Lightning's other skaters.