James Neal scored 3:38 into the second overtime Wednesday night to propel the Penguins to a dramatic 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay. Thanks to Neal’s heroics, the Pens snatched a commanding 3-1 lead over the Lightning in their opening-round playoff series.
For most of the opening 40 minutes it appeared that the Pens would coast to an easy win. The black and gold drew first blood at 8:14 courtesy of a rare power-play goal–their first of the series. Zbynek Michalek gathered in a pass from Mark Letestu and slid the puck to Tyler Kennedy at the left point. Taking full advantage of an open patch of ice, “TK” skated to the bottom of the faceoff circle and cut loose a hard shot. The puck sailed past Bolts’ netminder Dwayne Roloson, who was screened on the play by rookie Eric Tangradi.
The Penguins widened their lead to 2-0 early in the second period thanks to a perspiration goal by the lunch-pail gang. Following a faceoff win by Mike Rupp, Asham pried the puck out of a scrum along the boards and pushed a cross-ice pass to Ben Lovejoy at the right point. Lovejoy uncorked a blast that kicked off Roloson’s pads and into the high slot, where it was corralled by Asham. The hustling winger banged the puck off Nate Thompson’s skate and through Roloson’s five-hole for his third goal of the series.
The visitors dominated the action–piling up a 28-12 edge in shots–until the closing minutes of the second frame. At 17:14 Vincent Lecavalier found Martin St. Louis with a nifty chip pass in the neutral zone. Turning on the afterburners, the former Hart Trophy winner blew around Lovejoy and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a sizzling shot to pull Tampa Bay within one.
Inspired, the Lightning suddenly found their legs. They narrowly missed a game-tying goal with a minute left in the period when Lecavalier sprang Steven Stamkos loose on a breakaway. However, the slumping sniper made one too many moves and had his pocket picked by Pens defenseman Paul Martin.
Each team had its share of chances during an evenly played third period. The Lightning finally cashed in at 16:43, when Sean Bergenheim shoved the equalizer past Fleury from a goal-mouth scramble.
Despite blowing the lead, the Penguins kept their composure. They continued to battle hard through the first overtime. Their efforts were rewarded early in the second overtime. Jordan Staal outworked Lecavalier for a loose puck high in the Tampa Bay zone and sent a backhand pass to Neal, who was stationed at the right hash mark. With his back to the boards No. 18 launched the game-winner past Roloson to set off the Pens’ victory celebration.
“You think about it in between periods and watching those late ones go deep into the night, and here you’re thinking I wish I could be out there … and get that shot and win that one for your team,” Neal said. “I was fortunate enough, tonight was that night.”
Neal earned the No. 1 star … The Penguins out-shot Tampa Bay 53-31 … The Pens were 1-for-3 on the power play; the Lightning 0-4 … Mike Rupp and Kris Letang registered six shots apiece … Chris Kunitz and Steve Downie each served one-game suspensions … Eric Tangradi replaced Kunitz and paced the team with five hits … The Pens have a series record of 16-6 when they win Game 4.
The series shifts back to Pittsburgh for a Saturday matinee game at CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens will look to close out the series, while the Lightning will try to keep their flickering Cup hopes alive.
*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.