What a difference a game makes. A mere 72 hours after a sloppy, disjointed effort in Game 2 that had Steel City fans (and their coach) scratching their heads, the gritty, never-say-die Penguins rebounded to throttle the Lightning 3-2.
It was clear from the opening faceoff the Pens had regained their focus. Skating with a knife-blade edge, the black and gold ripped into the home-standing Lightning with a controlled fury.
In an effort to swing the momentum, Bolts winger Steve Downie swooped in and hammered Ben Lovejoy to the ice with a crushing check, but not before the Penguins’ defender pushed the puck ahead to Max Talbot. “Super Max” scooted over the Tampa Bay blue line, cut toward the middle of the ice, and beat Dwayne Roloson with a long-range drive at 5:46.
Forty-five seconds later the Pens were up by two, thanks to a great bit of teamwork by the fourth line. Kris Letang nudged the puck up the boards to Mike Rupp, who was churning through the neutral zone. Displaying the grace of a ballet dancer, “Rupper” eluded hulking Victor Hedman with a Crosby-esque move, scooped up the rubber and threaded a crisp cross-ice pass to Arron Asham inside the left circle. Asham drilled the puck into a wide-open net and for his second goal of the series.
“To be able to get the lead, get the two goals, I think was big for us and big for our mindset,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Penguins were firing on all cylinders. However, a flat-out atrocious call at 13:29 opened the door for Tampa Bay. Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund cross-checked Alexei Kovalev into Roloson–a maneuver that somehow escaped the attention of referees Dennis LaRue and Kelly Sutherland. Instead, Kovy was whistled off for goaltender interference. Martin St. Louis struck with the man advantage to pare the Pens’ lead to 2-1.
Determined to shake off their misfortune, the Penguins continued to carry the play in the second period. While working on a power play late in the frame James Neal nearly scored from the right side of the Lightning net. At the last second Roloson stuck out a pad to deny the snake-bitten winger. Seconds later Jordan Staal rambled down the slot, but shanked a shot wide of the cage.
Early in the third period the Lightning evened the score with Paul Martin serving an interference penalty. The ever-dangerous St. Louis pounced on a loose puck in the high slot and whipped it past Marc-Andre Fleury for his second power-play tally of the night.
Showing remarkable resilience, the Penguins responded just 35 seconds later. On the ensuing rush, Tyler Kennedy took advantage of heavy traffic in front of Roloson to poke in the go-ahead goal. Sparked by the ferocious forechecking of the Talbot-Chris Conner-Pascal Dupuis line, the Pens kept the heat on the Lightning defense. In the closing minutes Fleury stopped ex-Islander Sean Bergenheim from inside the right circle, and the “Peskies” emerged with a hard-fought (and richly deserved) 3-2 victory.
Kris Letang (two assists, five shots) earned the No. 1 star … “Tanger” paced the Pens with five hits … Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 25 of 27 shots … Ben Lovejoy picked up an assist and blocked four shots … Mark Letestu (8 for 14) and Max Talbot (10 for 18) combined to win 56 percent of their draws … Tampa Bay converted on two of four power plays … The Pens have a series record of 22-9 when they win Game 3.
The Penguins and Lightning hook up for a pivotal Game 4 at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday night.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and colorful history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more. A must have for any true Penguins fan.