Backed by the shutout goaltending of 41-year-old marvel Dwayne Roloson and a timely tally by Sean Bergenheim, the Lightning staved off a late charge by the Penguins to take Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals set 1-0.
It was playoff hockey at its finest as the rivals treated the partisan crowd of 18,507 at CONSOL Energy Center to a dramatic sixty minutes of non-stop action. Following a now-familiar pattern, the hustling Penguins dictated the tempo through the early going. Jordan Staal and Kris Letang each had a chance to stake the Pens to the lead, but were denied by the red-hot Roloson. At the eight-minute mark Chris Kunitz flew around Pavel Kubina but missed the net from close range.
The black and gold pounded “Roli the Goalie” throughout the opening period, piling up a 15-7 edge in shots. However, the veteran netminder continued to serve up goose eggs.
Tampa Bay finally broke the deadlock at 5:41 of the second period on a play that was déjà vu all over again. In a virtual rewind of his nifty setup in Game 6, ex-Pen Dominic Moore swooped behind the Pittsburgh net and reversed the puck to Bergenheim, who was stationed to the right of the cage. With Marc-Andre Fleury stranded at the far post anticipating a wraparound try, the Bolts’ winger drilled the puck into a yawning net.
“The Flower” atoned for his gaffe midway through the frame with a stunning glove save on Kubina from inside the right circle. Meanwhile, the Pens continued to fire away in search of the tying goal. Sixteen minutes into the period Staal pirouetted around a sliding Steven Stamkos and popped the puck into Roloson’s pads. Moments before the buzzer, Mark Letestu narrowly missed on a redirect.
Determined to go out on their shields, the Penguins turned up the heat in the final period. While working with the man advantage, Tyler Kennedy ripped off a sizzling shot from the right-wing circle, only to be stopped by the Lightning goalie. The Pens’ crash line of Craig Adams, Arron Asham and Mike Rupp enjoyed a terrific shift, pinning the Lightning in their own end for over a minute. After Fleury stuffed Adam Hall on the doorstep, Kennedy and Kunitz nearly jammed the puck past Roloson at the 18-minute mark.
The Penguins were handed one final power-play opportunity at 18:27, when Tampa grinder Nate Thompson was whistled off for slashing. Coach Dan Bylsma promptly pulled Fleury for an extra attacker to give his team a 6-on-4 advantage. But Roloson stopped James Neal from the slot with 34 ticks left on the clock to blunt the Pens’ last good chance.
It was a heartbreaking finish to a season that began with so much promise. But the valiant Pens battled a tough Lightning squad to the bitter end and have every right to be proud of themselves.
Dwayne Roloson stopped 36 shots to earn the No. 1 star … The Penguins out-shot the Lightning 36-23 … Kris Letang and James Neal paced the Pens with a game-high six shots apiece … Jordan Staal won 14 of 24 faceoffs … Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 of 23 shots in a losing cause … The Pens finished the series 1-for-35 on the power play (0-for-25 at home) … The Pens lost a series after holding a 3-1 lead for only the second time in franchise history.
The Lightning advance to the Semifinals to take on Washington. In other Eastern Conference action, Philadelphia and Boston hook up for a rematch of last year’s series. Out west, it’s Vancouver vs. Nashville and San Jose vs. Detroit.
*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.