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Penguins/Lightning Recap: Limp Pens barely avoid shutout in loss to Tampa

The Penguins don’t put up much of a fight and fall 3-1 to the Lightning

Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Pregame

In an effort to get the top six going, Reilly Smith is up on the top line and Bryan Rust drops down with Evgeni Malkin for the Penguins tonight.

The home-standing Lightning roll out the following lines.

First period

Tampa goes to the power play early on, and their group of stars combine to get on the scoreboard. Anthony Cirelli in the slot tips a Victor Hedman shot past Tristan Jarry and into the net 5:56 into the game. 1-0 TB.

The Pens melt away at this point and go 17 minutes between shots on goal.

Pittsburgh takes another penalty and Kris Letang takes an awkward fall into the end boards. He leaves the bench for the lockeroom, but only a very short amount of time and is back on the ice before the period ends. Pittsburgh escapes on the PK.

Shots are 11-4 Lightning, who play a much stronger period and lead by a goal.

Second period

Tampa scores in the first minute — but the goal is short-lived because Pittsburgh challenges for being offside, and they’re right. Huge turn of events to pull a goal off the board from the Lightning and keep the game at 1-0.

The Pens get a power play and by their recent standards it’s not bad. No chances against! But it doesn’t come particularly closing to scoring, either.

Smith goes to the penalty box and the dangerous Tampa power play makes the Pens pay. This time it’s Nikita Kucherov shortly after a clean faceoff win wiring a hard shot in to pad his lead in the NHL point scoring competition. The game goes to 2-0 Tampa after all.

By the end of the second, cracks are starting to form in Jarry. He can’t handle a Mikey Eyssimont shot and leaves a juicy rebound at his feet. Tanner Jeannot skates past John Ludvig and roofs the gift into the net. 3-0.

Shortly after, the Pens’ maligned power play gets their second chance of the game. Malkin and Karlsson aren’t available to start it having played the shift to draw it, but that doesn’t really matter at this point. Jake Guentzel gets one chance on a deflection by the net but it sails well high of the goal.

Shots in that period are 9-9 but it wasn’t a good one for the visitors who don’t have much of anything going for them.

For 27 game minutes (the last 16 minutes of the first period and the first 11 minutes of the second) the Penguins generated 0.15 expected goals and only 0.70 in the full first 40 minutes, via Moneypuck. That’s a gross flat line in yellow down there.

Third period

With nothing going right, the Pens load up the big boys with a Guentzel-Crosby-Malkin line, which might also be a byproduct of Bryan Rust not returning to the bench for the third period.

Jarry stops Cirelli on a breakaway to help atone from the earlier error and regain some form.

Letang skies a puck off the rink for a penalty with 9:29 to go. The Pens kill it but more of the game ticks away. Stamkos returns the favor and shoots a puck off the rink and then Victor Hedman trips Malkin to allow 40 seconds of a 5v3.

Mike Sullivan wisely uses the timeout — hey, you can’t take it with you — to rest the troops and give them the best chance possible to break the 0-for-32 (33? who can keep track) power play skid. It’s all for naught.

In the last minute, Jake Guentzel scores by at least making an effort and the puck flutters in. There’s no hint of a celebration or any joy in the aftermath, but the goal at least allows the Pens avoid being shutout.

Time runs out, Pittsburgh falls 3-1 for a third straight loss.

Some thoughts

  • For all the Penguins’ ups and downs, earlier in the season they were regularly scoring first, leading games early on and at least in a position to play from ahead in almost all of the first 15/17ish games. That seems like it’s gone away big time. Last week in Tampa it was 2-0 after the first period. This game it was only a 1-0 hole early on, but it meant working uphill almost the entire way.
  • As far as this game went early with the team looking flat, quite frankly Tristan Jarry has more than earned the bailout of the video crew helping him to take a goal away from the opposition. Often it doesn’t seem like he’s getting a lot of support these days, it was nice to see someone had his back.
  • Jarry also benefited by Steven Stamkos ripping a laser of a shot off the right post in the first period and Nikita Kucherov hitting the crossbar on the power play in the second period. Jarry deserves all the bounces he can get at this point.
  • The initial Penguin lines lasted until Tampa went up 2-0, without paying any dividends. Rust was over-passing in the very seldom opportunities he had the puck in the offensive zone. Smith was invisible on the top line. Worth a shot since they can always quickly go back to the established unit that’s working, but pressing this button failed to get anything going.
  • Smith didn’t go back to Malkin’s line either, Lars Eller took that spot. Smith got in with a newly shuffled combo of Jeff Carter and Radim Zohorna which is a far cry from the Guentzel/Crosby duo.
  • The contrast between the Pens and Lightning power play was stark. With Kucherov and Stamkos as legit shooting options, Tampa can stretch the zone horizontally. Because of that, Hedman can creep in from the blue line almost to the top of the circles. Given personnel and strengths, not a lot to copy or take there, which only adds to the mystery that Pittsburgh is trying to work through now on how to get their group going.
  • As bad as this was, it could have been even worse had Letang suffered an injury in the first period. That appears to be a major bullet dodged. But on that front, Rust’s absence in the third is another situation to monitor with potentially significant ramifications.
  • Joona Koppanen barely played and Jeff Carter is who he is at this point, but where was the desperation from anyone like Nylander, Zohorna, O’Connor, Harkins? Those types of players are just names on a lineup sheet right now. Any of those players could and probably should be replaced in the near future if they don’t make the most of these opportunities. Can throw Smith (and Eller) in there too, even though they are not fringe NHL caliber players. The disappointments start with the top guys on the power play, but the supporting level is non-existent right now.

Tampa is a strong team and didn’t give the Penguins much of a chance to get on track, and the long stretch of games is going to continue in fairly short order with another road game on Friday in Florida.