PITTSBURGH — In a game filled with chippy exchanges, rough hits — which were legal and otherwise — the Pittsburgh Penguins played to the gritty identity their coach has been preaching. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang had two points each as the Penguins beat the NHL leading Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2.
In a clear moment of classic hockey message sending, Malkin fought Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos.
“I thought we did a real good job with our discipline. This could have been a special teams battle real quick,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought we did a good job of playing between the whistles and pushing back when we could.”
The Penguins needed a dose of confidence after their 6-3 loss to the last-place New Jersey Devils Monday night, and the Penguins fourth line set them in the right direction.
Just a few minutes into the game, grinder Garret Wilson grabbed his own rebound, swung around the net but just missed a wrap-around attempt. The puck bounced perfectly to the speeding Sheahan (7), who netted the rebound.
“It was huge. A goal early like that gets us going,” said Penguins goalie Matt Murray. “That was probably the turning point for sure.”
The Penguins scoring had just begun.
Five minutes later, the Penguins struck once again. Phil Kessel, for the third time in the past four games, made his mark on the scoreboard thanks in part to Bryan Rust, as he crashed to the net with perfection. Rust drew the attention of Vasilevskiy and sent a pass across the crease to Kessel, who was in the perfect spot to send home the second goal of the game.
Evgeni Malkin earned the second assist on Kessel’s goal, the 600th in his career, making him just the 4th Russian player in NHL history to reach that milestone.
“I think Geno [sic] responded the right way (to the New Jersey loss), and everybody followed,” said Letang.
The Eastern Conference leaders Tampa Bay showed some rust in their first game since Jan. 19.
The Penguins made the most of Tampa’s slow start and the Lightning continued to make mistakes for Pittsburgh to jump on. Sixteen seconds after Kessel’s goal, With the puck behind the net, a costly turnover by Brayden Point saw the puck go right to Pittsburgh’s Dominik Simon. Simon fired the puck to the red hot Sidney Crosby who did not hesitate to take advantage of the wide open right side of the net to make the score 3-0 with 11:39 left in the first.
The goal marked Crosby’s 20th point in the last 15 games and the 12th game in the past 15 in which Crosby had earned a point.
The end of the first period rang in with the score at 3-0. Pittsburgh had just five shots but certainly made the most of their scoring opportunities.
In search of any way to get themselves some sort of momentum, the Lightning saw their first chance to do so two minutes into the second period as Malkin earned himself two minutes for hooking JT Miller.
Tampa Bay was frustrated on their first power play opportunity of the game. It had been a physical game and both teams were seen in scuffles during stoppages in play.
“I think we stayed disciplined. Right away, (Malkin) getting hit, we stayed in this game. Kept playing hard,” said Letang.
The minor conflicts boiled over into a near-brawl to the right of Matt Murray as several players from each team got into the action. The referees assessed penalties to Brian Dumoulin and Alex Killorn to create a 4-on-4.
The 4-on-4 was just what Kris Letang needed to blow this game even more wide open and to create some history of his own. Letang took the pass from Kessel and rocketed the puck past Vasilevsky from the right faceoff circle. The goal was Letang’s 108th career goal which tied him with Paul Coffey for the most goals in franchise history by a defenseman.
The game continued its physical nature into the third period as Malkin and Stamkos wrestled to the ground. Tampa Bay’s frustration that had been building all night, boiled over as the Penguins bullied and dominated the Lightning on the scoreboard.
“Geno is always good for one fight a year. I guess that was it,” teased Letang.
The hits were explosive on both sides, but the typically dominant Lightning had been stymied by the Penguins defense. Their best offensive chances had been shut down by Matt Murray who made several sprawling saves throughout the night.
Despite having fewer shots, the opportunistic Penguins played their style of hockey as they crashed the net to make things difficult for Vasilevskiy. The Lightning goaltender finished the night with a .818 save percentage — just 18 saves on 22 shots.
Tampa Bay continued to battle, scoring two late goals in the game’s final minutes, but down four goals, the rested Lightning found their footing too late in the contest.
After a deflating defeat Monday, the Penguins earned themselves a key victory against Tampa Bay.