PITTSBURGH -- Eighteen seconds. While hardly enough time to walk to the kitchen to grab a drink, here at the Consol Energy Center Wednesday night, 18 seconds was exactly enough time to blow a game wide open. After 46 minutes of scoreless, stalemate hockey, where two goalies looked like they just might stop each and every puck, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored back-to-back goals, 18 seconds apart, to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 in Game 1 of their first-round series.
Six minutes into the third period, Penguins defenseman Paul Martin won a battle along the boards and chipped the puck to forward James Neal at the top of the left circle. As the winger, a trade deadline pickup from Dallas in February, wound up to take the shot, Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson squared himself at the top of his crease, but waiting in the wing, standing there backdoor was Pittsburgh winger Alex Kovalev. Just moments before, Kovalev had been on the ground, seemingly lamenting a non-call, but just as he got back on his skates, he found the puck on his stick and buried it on a wide open net. It was the 19-year veteran's first goal in five games, just his third since joining the Penguins at the trade deadline.
"When the chips are down, and we're in a playoff game, he comes up big with our first goal," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's what you see in a lot of our players with playoff experience."
So, it didn't come as too much of a surprise a few seconds later when, on the next shift, fourth-line grinder Arron Asham, who filled that role for the Philadelphia Flyers during their run last spring, came charging in, faking out Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer and Roloson. He swooped back behind the net and hammered home the second goal, and the cheers for Kovalev turned into cheers for Asham and more cheers for the Penguins, who have managed to win despite the notable absence of their superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
When it comes down to it, that is what experienced teams do.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is making its first postseason appearance since 2007, hoping to win its first playoff series since it lifted the Stanley Cup in 2004. Only three players remain from that '04 team -- Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Pavel Kubina -- and nobody else on its roster has won it all. And so the team watched the DVD tribute of their Cup run on the bus to show just what a championship run looks like.
"You just see all the sacrifice that's made," said Tampa's leading goal-scorer Steven Stamkos, who made his playoff debut Wednesday.
It's one thing to see it, another to go through it. While the Lightning downplayed the disparity in experience before the game -- "This is just Game 83," coach Guy Boucher said -- as the game wore on, it was obvious the Penguins' confidence grew. It was Pittsburgh whose play got stronger even despite the scoring dearth.
"As a team, I think [experience] does matter," Bylsma said before the game. "I think Max Talbot knows he scored a big goal before [the Cup-winning goal in 2009]. And I think he knows going into the series, it might come down to a chance where he has the puck on his stick."
In Game 1, it didn't happen for Talbot; it happened for Kovalev, for Asham, and it certainly happened for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. With 62 playoff games under his belt and a Stanley Cup title on his resume, Fleury entered this, just his fourth postseason, as the league's most experienced starting goaltender -- and only at age 26. (Only Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov, Nikolai Khabibulin and Chris Osgood have logged more postseason minutes.) And Wednesday night, his experience and confidence in the net shined through, especially early in the game. As the Lightning threw shot after shot -- many from point-blank range -- Fleury did not waver, making some spectacular, momentum-shifting saves.
Now, will the Penguins, who have limited scoring options, have to rely on their goalie like this for every game here on out? Fleury smiles. "I dunno," he said. "Whatever needs to be done, I guess."
Spoken like somebody who's been there before.