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Penguins Six-Pack: ‘We Just Hung in There’; Bunting in Crosshairs



Michael Bunting game-winning goal

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a problem protecting leads all season, and Tampa Bay possesses one of the most volatile offenses in the NHL.

It probably shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, then, that the Lightning ran off three unanswered goals in the first 11 minutes of the third period Saturday at PPG Paints Arena to transform a 4-1 deficit into a 4-4 tie.

“They have the ability to score multiple goals in a short period of time,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’ve done that time and time again.”

Although there have been times when it seemed inevitable that, after wiping out the Penguins’ lead, their opponent would go on to score the deciding goal, that’s not how it played out Saturday.

Penguins winger Michael Bunting, who already had contributed a pair of assists, took a feed from Evgeni Malkin, who had a pair of goals, and controlled the puck with his skate before backhanding a shot past Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Penguins a 5-4 victory that propelled them, at least temporarily, into a tie with Philadelphia and the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division and the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference playoff field.

“We just hung in there,” Sullivan said. “It was a great team effort. It’s just a lot of fun to watch these guys compete right now. We’re trying to stay in the fight. We understand how difficult it is.”

Here are six observations from the Penguins’ most recent victory:

A wanted man (sort of)

Tampa Bay doesn’t care much for Bunting, and it doesn’t have much to do with the game-winning goal he scored Saturday. Or the two he helped to set up, for that matter.

No, the Lightning seemed to put him in their cross-hairs — and keep him there for much of the afternoon — because of an incident during their first-round playoff series against Carolina last spring.

Bunting received a three-game suspension — an exceptionally stiff penalty by postseason standards — for a headshot he delivered to Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak in the series opener.

The Lightning’s animus toward him was evident in the vigor and frequency with which they targeted him for hits throughout the game.

While head shots are pretty much indefensible, Bunting has given the Penguins a badly needed measure of measure of aggressiveness up front, a guy capable of distracting opponents and getting them off their game.

Rest or repeat?

Alex Nedeljkovic has started eight games in a row, going 6-0-2, and played a prominent role in making the Pittsburgh Penguins more than an afterthought in the playoff race.

His numbers against the Lightning — he gave up four goals on 34 shots — weren’t quite as gaudy as they have been in some games lately, but Tampa Bay has one of the league’s most prolific offenses, as well as its top-ranked power play.

If Nedeljkovic continues to perform at the levels he’s reached of late, he just might achieve Johan Hedberg-level unexpected-late-season-heroics status.

But he labors in a physically and mentally demanding position, and that could present Sullivan and his staff with a difficult decision: Do they continue to ride Nedeljkovic for as long as he plays well, or do they give No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry — idle since March 24 — a start to give Nedeljkovic a break … and risk knocking him out of the rhythm into which he has gotten?

A credible case could be made for either approach. Sullivan can only hope that the one he chooses proves to be correct.

Watching in agony

Tampa Bay already was 2-for-3 with the extra man when the Lightning were awarded another power play with one minute, 36 seconds left in regulation and the Penguins clinging to a 5-4 lead.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ penalty-killers, who had allowed just two goals in 21 shorthanded situations during the previous seven games, had to be concerned. So, presumably, were most people in the crowd of 18,383.

But it’s doubtful that anyone was quite as worried as Marcus Pettersson, who had been sent to the penalty box serving a delay-of-game minor. Especially when both of the penalties he had taken earlier had led to man-advantage goals by Lightning forward Steven Stamkos.

“Not fun,” Pettersson said. “Not fun. I had taken two already, and they scored on both of them. You can’t take that many penalties. It was no fun, but the guys battled hard. I look down and I see four guys laying around the crease, trying to block shots. That was huge for us.”

Storm warning

Tampa Bay is comfortably in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and would have pulled even with third-place Toronto in the Atlantic Division if the Lightning had beaten the Penguins.

Despite its relatively modest place in the standings, Tampa Bay is not a team any club should be eager to face in Round 1 of the playoffs.

The Lightning’s lineup is stocked with veterans, some of whom own a couple of Stanley Cup rings, so not having home-ice advantage won’t bother them. They also possess a quick-strike offense with few rivals, to say nothing of the NHL’s most productive power play.

That’s what happens when you have the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Stamkos, among others, on the payroll.

And while the Penguins scored five times against Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s one of the best goaltenders in the world, quite capable of stealing a game. Or a series.

Some team that had a terrific regular season will open the playoffs with a best-of-seven against Tampa Bay. (Boston is in line for the honor right now.) That club should consider itself fortunate if it reaches Round 2.

Always thinking

One of Alex Nedeljkovic’s most shrewd plays isn’t going to show up on the scoresheet, but it showed that he wasn’t focused only on stopping pucks.

There was a faceoff in the left circle of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ end with 6.2 seconds left in regulation. Tampa Bay won it and got the puck to defenseman Darren Raddysh, who threw a shot toward the net from the top of that circle.

Nedeljkovic made the save, but rather than covering the rebound and giving the Lightning another chance to score off a faceoff, he used his glove to shove the puck toward the left-wing corner.

No one got to it before time expired.

“You obviously have an idea of the time on the clock,” Nedeljkovic said. “First things first. Just trying to make the save. (Raddysh) put it in a spot where I was able to control it. I was confident that I had control and knew where it was. At that point, it was just about getting it down and getting it into the corner. … I had the time and opportunity. It’s just being aware of what’s going on around you.”

Missing in action

Former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Conor Sheary, a member of their Stanley Cup-winning teams in 2016 and 2017, was in the Tampa Bay lineup after sitting out the previous five games as a healthy scratch.

It would have been easy to overlook his presence, and not only because he is only 5-foot-8, 179 pounds.

Sheary, one of 11 forwards Lightning coach Jon Cooper dressed, did not record a point or shot on goal in 13 minutes, one second of playing time.

He has three goals and 10 assists in 53 games with the Lightning this season.

Sheary signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent last summer and has two years remaining on a deal that carries a $2 million salary-cap hit.