Tyler Johnson and J.T. Miller ripped top-shelf wrist shots through traffic and past Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith. The teams each earned 24 penalty minutes in a chippy game in which many more penalties could have been called. The Tampa Bay Lightning returned the beating the Penguins gave them last week and beat the Penguins 5-4 at the Amelia Arena, Saturday night.
The Penguins have lost four straight and now lead the Carolina Hurricanes by just one point and the Buffalo Sabres by just two points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“Close games like that are going to be pretty common all the way (until the end of the season,” said Sidney Crosby who also passed Mario Lemieux as the Penguins all-time games played leader with 916. “We need to find a way to make sure we’re getting those big plays and that’s probably the more frustrating part than anything.”
The Penguins started well.
Finally. In his 60th NHL game which occurred nearly nine years after he was drafted in the fourth round by the Florida Panthers, Garrett Wilson scored his first NHL goal. The grinding fourth-liner who has created ample offensive chances without the finish earned the Penguins a 1-0 lead later in the first period.
On a 2-on-1 with fellow Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins alumnus Teddy Blueger, Wilson (1) roofed a one-timer over Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
However, Tampa Bay struck and struck again quickly. Less than 90 seconds after Wilson scored and before the smile receded from his face, Tampa tied the game on a 2-on-0 breakaway. Kris Letang was felled in the offensive zone while his defensive partner Marcus Pettersson fell trying to transition to defense when Bryan Rust’s cross-ice pass through a crowd of defenders was predictably intercepted.
Yanni Gourde (14) snapped it over Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith.
“That’s the way games are going to be this time of year. We’ve got to find a way to be on the right side of it,” said Crosby. “There are going to be close games and you’ve got to find ways to win those.”
Just 57 seconds after that, Tampa Bay benefitted from traffic in front of the net. From the blue line, defenseman Eric Cernak (2) shot the puck towards the net. It deflected off Patric Hornqvist’s skate and Tampa Bay claimed a lead.
“Some mistakes that we make, we beat ourselves. With some of the decisions we make with the puck and give them some real high-quality opportunities,” said head coach Mike Sullivan.
Tampa Bay extended their lead early in the second period by exploiting the Penguins Achilles heel: shorthanded goals. Tampa Bay quickly transitioned from a Phil Kessel turnover and Anthony Cirelli (10) deked DeSmith for a 3-1 lead. It was the Penguins’ league-leading 12th shorthanded goal allowed.
“I don’t think we beat ourselves necessarily, but that shorthanded goal hurts,” Crosby said. “At the end of the night, that was the difference.”
The Penguins, however, did not go quietly. The play got chippy in the second period and the Penguins used a pair of 4-on-4 opportunities to put digits on the scoreboard.
First, newly acquired Jared McCann and defenseman Jack Johnson stormed the Tampa Bay zone. Johnson executed a center drive and McCann (10) ripped a shot past Vasilevskiy.
Later in the second period, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust worked a textbook cycle. Guentzel’s wraparound shot slid to Rust (15) who burrowed under 6-foot-6 Victor Hedman for position near the crease.
However, the Penguins could not score enough 5v5. Early in the third period, Tyler Johnson (19) blasted a top-shelf shot from the left wing circle. Later in the third period, Pittsburgh-area native J.T. Miller (9) zipped a wrister over DeSmith, too.
Tanner Pearson made it close late in the third period. Sidney Crosby raced around the Tampa Bay net and laid a pretty pass on Pearson’s stick in the slot. Pearson (9) quickly scored but the Penguins could not get the fifth goal.
DeSmith stopped 29 of 34. Vasilevskiy stopped 28 of 32.
Penguins forward Nick Bjugstad left the game in the third period after being clipped by the skate of Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh. On the forecheck, Bjugstad checked McDonagh whose back skate hit Bjugstad near his armpit.
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