On the same night that Jim Rutherford was honored as a finalist for the NHL’s General Manager of the Year award, three of his key acquisitions led the Penguins to a 4–2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.
Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin each had a goal and an assist, and Nick Bonino added a helper to pace the attack.
Kessel and Bonino were picked up in bold, multi-player trades by Rutherford last summer. Hagelin was acquired in a midseason deal with the Ducks. The three have combined to form Pittsburgh’s most consistent line in the playoffs, tallying 14 goals and 39 points.
Sidney Crosby, with his second goal in two games, and Chris Kunitz provided some late insurance for the Penguins.
Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat replied for the Lightning, who were outshot 48–28.
With the win, Pittsburgh takes a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 goes Friday night in Tampa (8:00 pm ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS)
Here are some quick thoughts after the Penguins’ dominant performance:
On a night when the Lightning were again playing loose with the puck, it was a Tampa Bay turnover that led to the icebreaker goal with 10 seconds left in the second period.
Jonathan Drouin carried puck into the Pittsburgh zone, but instead of shooting or driving the net, he curled at the face-off dot to look for a trailer. His backhand attempt to Victor Hedman was intercepted by Kessel, who blew by the Lightning defender, raced down the wing and threw the puck at the net. Andrei Vasilevskiy made the initial save, but the rebound went directly to Hagelin, who inexplicably was untouched by a backchecking Braydon Coburn and left wide open to bury it into the gaping cage.
It was Pittsburgh's 21st shot of the period to just six for the Lightning. Putting that one on the board and preventing the Bolts from escaping with a scoreless tie was the pivotal moment of the contest.
Notable number: 44
Is there any doubt that the Lightning have a budding superstar in Vasilevskiy? The 21-year-old was all that stood between the Bolts and a blowout on Wednesday night as he stopped 44 of the 48 shots that came his way. Three of the pucks that got by him were second-chance opportunities; the other was a one-timer by Crosby on a power play. Impossible to blame the kid for any of them.
"He was unreal tonight," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "I just feel bad for the kid that he's keeping us in there and we're not finding a way to bail him out. We have to be better as a group in front of him. He was the obvious bright spot in tonight's game."
So, what do the Lightning do in Game 4 if starter Ben Bishop is good to go? Vasilevskiy has seized the opportunity to take charge on the big stage, impressing with his composure under heavy fire. But Bishop, who is expected to practice with the team on Thursday, is a Vezina Trophy finalist. With the series slipping away, Cooper can’t leave a weapon like that in his holster.
Would Bishop have made a difference in either of the past two losses? Not with Tampa's offense firing blanks. But if he's ready, he'll be between the pipes for Game 4.
What it means
Other than turning to Bishop, what does Cooper do now? He spoke after the game of having a short memory and turning the page, but he'll need more than positive thinking to get his team back in this series.
It's getting ugly for the Bolts. They gave up 40-plus shots for the second consecutive game, and have been outshot 124–69 in the series. They're constantly chasing the play, rather than dictating it.
That almost changed early in Game 4. They came out of the gates with real intensity, using their speed and a surprisingly effective forecheck to build up a quick 7-2 shot advantage. But it wasn’t 10 minutes before they started falling into old habits, coughing up pucks in the neutral zone and dropping back as the Pens attacked in waves.
It has to be maddening for the coach, who has spoken repeatedly about the need to simplify their game and get pucks to the net. The Pens deserve credit for not making that easy, but the Lightning continue to be their own worst enemies in this series.
If there’s one glimmer of hope, it’s that they may have discovered a flaw in Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray. Johnson’s goal slipped under his right arm, the same place that Drouin beat him in Game 2. If they ever start shooting the puck instead of looking for a better play, they at least have a target to aim for.