The Tampa Bay Lightning stormed to an early lead then withstood a furious third-period rally on Friday to secure a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Ryan Callahan, Andrej Sustr, Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson staked the Bolts to a 4-0 lead after two periods, chasing Penguins' starter Matt Murray in the process.
But Pittsburgh came out hard in the third, getting goals from Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz and staging a furious last-minute assault before finally falling short. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all seven shots he faced while making his first appearance of the postseason in the final period. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 35 saves to claim the victory.
The Lightning win evens the series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
Here are a few quick hits on Tampa Bay’s white-knuckle victory:
Kris Letang has maybe been Pittsburgh's MVP since Christmas, but he practically gifted this one to the Lightning.
With the Pens trailing 2-0 in the second period, the edgy defender lost his cool in an after-the-whistle altercation involving several members of the Lightning. He was assessed a double minor, giving the Bolts a four-minute man advantage.
Despite some good early pressure by the Lightning, Pittsburgh actually had the best chance during the first minor. A turnover at the blue line sent forward Eric Fehr in alone with a chance to cut the lead to 2-1. Drouin, who was working the point, hustled on the back check and got just enough of the Penguin attacker to disrupt his chance.
The Lightning continued to press as the man advantage wound down and after some slick passing, Drouin found himself alone at the side of the net with the puck.
The smart play would have been a quick shot to test Murray and possibly create a rebound. Instead, he made the mistake of trying to pass it out front to a double-covered Ondrej Palat. The pass failed to connect, but bounced off Palat's skate and right back onto Drouin's stick for an easy empty side tap-in that made it 3-0 Tampa Bay.
"I [screwed] up," Letang said after the game. "I can't do that. The best thing for me to do is skate away and that's it."
Gif of the Night
This was tough to watch. Trevor Daley was tracking down a puck with Callahan in pursuit. He ran hard into the end boards and fell awkwardly. Hard to tell what went wrong—a knee, an ankle, an Achilles—but he was unable to put any weight on the leg and had to be helped to the room.
He didn't return in the third, making him questionable for Game 5. If he's not able to go, it would be a massive loss for a Pittsburgh defense whose depth already has been called into question.
Notable Number: 77%
Lightning coach Jon Cooper wanted his team to get more pucks on net in Game 4, and it obliged. Although the Lightning only made 48 attempts on the night, they landed 37 of them on Murray and Fleury. That 77% success rate is almost unheard of. By comparison, 27 of Pittsburgh's 65 attempts either were blocked or went wide, meaning the Penguins hit the net 58% of the time.
What It Means
Forget the third period for a moment. The Bolts got the win they desperately needed to turn this series into a best-of-three. Led by Callahan, they came out hard, established their forecheck, and got their defense involved in the attack by getting pucks back to the point. They threw everything they could at Murray and started taking care of all the little things that got away from them while losing Games 2 and 3.
Now, back to that third. That was... ugly. And it almost cost them the game. Instead of continuing to apply pressure, they started to lay back and play it safe, allowing the risk-taking Pens to slowly reel the game back in.
"You have to play the game all the way through," Cooper said. "I thought they caught a couple breaks, and then they get the power play. Pretty much thought we killed that off, and they make a good play to get the [Kunitz goal on the] rebound. But I really thought -- I didn't think we ever lost control of the game."
Maybe not, but they made it a lot more interesting than it should have been.
As for the Pens, even though they lost it feels like they'll be the ones taking momentum back to Pittsburgh. There are adjustments that need to be made to ensure they don't come out as flat as they did in this one, but give them credit for the resilience they showed in that third period
It should help their cause if Malkin can deliver another effort like this one. He was everywhere and everything in that third period. He scored his first goal in nine games and finally played up to his size. If he can carry that over to Game 5, the Bolts better keep their heads up.
So, who starts in net in Game 5? Fleury didn't simply stop all seven shots he faced in relief. He made some huge stops right off the bat, including a huge stop on Vladislav Namestnikov that set the stage for the comeback bid.
Coach Mike Sullivan said he "hasn't given it any thought at this point," but it could be a tough call. Murray has earned the start based on what he's accomplished through three rounds. But when your No. 1 is ready to go, leaving him on the bench opens Sullivan up to heavy criticism. It'll be interesting to see which way he turns.