Lightning come up off the canvas swinging.
Eastern Conference Finals
Series Tied 2-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals in garbage time on a total of 38 shots for the victory. He was really good the first 40 minutes of the game and goodness knows he deserved the goal support that finally came for him tonight. That said, he may have opened the door a crack for Bishop to come back in for Game Five in the Third Period if Bishop is healthy. Not to say Vasilevskiy played poorly, but Ben's an established big game goaltender and this Game Five will be a really big game.
0:27 TB Callahan(2), (Hedman, Brown)
14:28 TB Sustr(1), (Kucherov, Killorn)
14:38 TB Drouin(4), (Palat, Hedman)(PP)
17:48 TB Johnson(6), (Kucherov, Killorn)
1:18 PIT Kessel(8), (Bonino, Dumoulin)
11:13 PIT Malkin(4), (Cole)
13:08 PIT Kunitz(3), (Schultz, Sheary)(PP)
Well now, this game sort of rearranged the chess board, didn't it?
First off, the most obvious takeaway from the game is the difference in the Lightning's energy level. After sleepwalking through much of the last two games, they jumped out hard on the forecheck from the very first shift tonight to generate Callahan's tip in goal. Nobody's going to make excuses at this time of year, but going back to what I wrote in Game Three, I wouldn't be shocked if the flu bug hit the team harder than anyone let on for Game Two and Game Three and that's why they were lethargic like they were when the flu bug hit the team for Game Five of the Detroit series. It's probably naive to suggest that illness struck Callahan and Callahan alone, and given some days to recover and also the swift kick in the rear that was the embarrassment of Game Three, the Lightning definitely looked much more like themselves in this game. The Lightning eventually built the two goal advantage in the First Period with Nikita Kucherov coming off the milk carton he had been on to find Sustr jumping into the play for the goal.
In the Second Period, the Lightning got the all-important three goal cushion on a pretty stale looking power play when a broken play on a Drouin centering feed hit traffic and bounded back to him for a shot at an open side. Nikita Kucherov put the icing on the cake on an odd man rush where he danced, dished, and then dangled before finding Johnson on a sharp centering pass for the goal. The Lightning allowed the Penguins to make a game of it in garbage time with an iffy goal for Vasilevskiy to allow off the rush early in the period, some poor defending against the rush on the Malkin goal, and then the Penguins finally breaking through on the power play to get a rebound goal. That was scary with a little under seven minutes to go, but the Lightning defended pretty well down the stretch of the game to get it over the finish line. If anything, there may be some silver linings in that because I think I'd rather the team not get comfortable with a laugher and get lulled into a flat start next time out. Pittsburgh's dangerous and Game Five the Lightning are going to be going into a hornet's nest in Pittsburgh. They've got to take their energy level from this game and crank it up two more degrees still if they want to capture that all important 3-2 series lead and have a chance to close on home ice in Game Six.
As an aside, Pittsburgh's late game push was aided by what overall was one of the poorest officiated games I think you'll ever see at this late stage of a season. Dismissing all of the blatant holding and stick infractions Pittsburgh got away with in close quarters in the Third Period (and they always get away with to a degree at all times), there were two really atrocious misses in broad daylight that thankfully didn't turn the game but very well could have. The first was a missed high stick that cut Hedman under the neck by Eric Fehr on a play at the Pens blueline while Tampa Bay was on the power play where Drouin eventually scored. Hedman went down like a ton of bricks and Fehr got a breakaway out of the deal. Mercifully, Drouin had a good backcheck and Vasilevskiy made the big save, but this could've been a very different game at 2-1 if Fehr scores there when it should've been a full 5-on-3 advantage for the Lightning instead. Then, early in the Third Period, you had Letang tackle Kucherov in the corner with the free hand and then hold him in a headlock in the corner for 5 seconds thereafter with no call, which sent the message to the Pens that nothing was going to be called on them in the frame. In both cases, these were out in the wide open with nothing to obscure them. Stevie Wonder would've raised in arm on those plays they were so obvious. But, uncalled, they nearly tilted the game and the series toward Pittsburgh. It's inexcusable to me that in a conference final referees miss two calls like that. There needs to be discipline handed down to the referees for that, especially after the uncalled can opener on Johnson that preceded Crosby's OT winner in Game Two. I'm not even calling it biased so much as it is outright rancid officiating all around at this point. It's just really, really bad. These guys have not cloaked themselves in glory either way in this series.
Now Game Five becomes really intriguing because you have three interesting story lines lurking just beneath the surface. First, the Second Period saw Trevor Daley seemingly twist an ankle or knee on a hit by Ryan Callahan in the Penguins zone. Daley couldn't get back up on his feet on the play and had to be helped off the rink not to return. That's a huge loss for the Pittsburgh defense if he can't go in Game Five or beyond. Pittsburgh's defense is not that deep and they have some weak links they're already covering up for. Losing Daley's minutes throws a little injury adversity their way and we might get to see how they handle the bitter stew the Lightning have been choking down the last two months. In net, M.A. Fleury had a clean sheet in the Third Period after replacing young Matt Murray after 40 minutes. I didn't think Murray played poorly, but Sullivan's got an interesting conundrum here with the choice between a 21 year old goaltender who doesn't have the deep wellspring of experience or a guy like Fleury who has won a Cup heading into a pivotal Game Five matchup. For the record, Fleury has never terrified me and I don't think either one is that superior to the other, but it puts another interesting element into the mix. And then there's the question of Ben Bishop's health and whether you take out Andrei Vasilevskiy after he's really played well in this series to date. Cooper's dilemma is similar to Sullivan's, if Bishop's healthy and all things are even. Vasilevskiy's done nothing to diminish his stock, but Ben Bishop proved he was a big game goaltender in the playoffs last year and has that Game Seven win at MSG to point to that's the gold standard for winning in a hostile environment when the chips are down. What would I do? It's tough, but I think Vasilevskiy giving up that Kessel goal and another rebound control (rebound control being his one area needing improvement in these last 3+ game) issue on the Kunitz goal and a few other juggling plays, I might go back with Bishop. Also, Bishop helps add a wrinkle of disruption to Pittsburgh's forecheck with his puck handling ability too.
Point being to all of that: neither team may look and play quite the same in this little 3 game mini-series coming up to decide it all as they did in this 4 game compulsory set. It's going to be a fascinating little chess match that unfolds, and it really gets shaken up if Steven Stamkos comes available, too.
Slater Koekkoek was -2 with 1 blocked shot in 8:13 of ice time. Defending against the rush was a bit of an issue and he backed up a little bit more than maybe he should have, particularly on the Malkin goal. Mind you, he was picked a bit. It certainly wasn't all his fault, but he was in the mix for the awarding of the goat horns there. With that said, his athleticism has been needed given Matt Carle continues to look a gear or two too slow, particularly against this opponent. And, goodness knows I'm not keen on seeing Nesterov out there with his matador's cape against the likes of Crosby and Malkin, either.