In what amounted to a dress rehearsal of their opening-round playoff series, the Penguins dropped a hard-fought 2-1 decision to Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum. The victory pulled the Lightning to within three points of the Pens in the battle for home-ice advantage.
Although “the Peskies” played their hearts out in another gritty, determined effort, they couldn’t dig themselves out of an early hole. The Bolts drew first blood at 4:51 of the first period when ex-Flyer Steve Downie slipped a backhander past Marc-Andre Fleury from a goal-mouth scramble.
Midway through the frame they pushed their lead to 2-0, thanks to some textbook interference by Vincent Lecavalier. The former Maurice Richard Trophy winner bumped Kris Letang off the puck in the neutral zone and proceeded to wrap the Pens’ defender in the type of embrace usually shared by young lovers. Martin St. Louis scooped up the loose rubber, shifted into overdrive and blew the puck past Fleury from the right faceoff circle for his 30th goal of the season.
To their credit, the Pens refused to go down quietly. While working on a power play early in the second period, James Neal skated out of the corner and unleashed a wicked shot that was turned aside by goalie Dwayne Roloson. Later in the frame Neal made another terrific play to steal the puck at center ice. The big winger burst down the slot and ripped off a hard shot, only to be denied again. Although the Penguins dominated the second-period shot clock, 14-6, they were stymied by the 41-year-old Roloson, who turned in a superb 36-save performance.
The Pens finally got on the board at 4:31 of the third period, thanks to a fluke goal. Alexei Kovalev stripped the puck from a Lightning player at the blue line and slid a pass to Mike Rupp, who was stationed along the wall. “Ruppster” flipped a knuckling shot past Bolts defenseman Mike Lundin and Roloson to cut the lead to 2-1.
Rejuvenated, the Penguins pressed furiously for a tying goal. With Fleury pulled for an extra attacker, Ben Lovejoy broke up a Lightning thrust at center ice and sent his teammates pouring into the Tampa zone. However, the offensively challenged Pens couldn’t push the equalizer past Roloson.
Despite the outcome, the team was reasonably pleased with its effort–especially over the final 40 minutes.
“I think it showed in the second and the third the way we can control a game and really press on a team,” Jordan Staal said. “If we start off like that and do that for three periods, it’s tough for a team to face that.”
The Penguins out-shot the Lightning 37-24 … The power play continues to sputter (0-5) … The Pens have converted only two of their last 50 chances with the man advantage … Sidney Crosby participated in his first team practice since January 5 … The Pens are 19-13-5 without Sid; 11-10-4 minus “the two-headed monster” of Crosby and Malkin … Arron Asham, Deryk Engelland and Eric Godard were healthy scratches … Dustin Jeffrey will undergo knee surgery on April 5.
The Penguins travel to Miami for a return match against the Panthers on Saturday. A victory will give the black and gold a sweep in the season series.
*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.