The Tampa Bay Lightning jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Game 4, but the Pittsburgh Penguins put a scare into the Bolts with a three-goal third period. The Lightning and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy were able to hang on, however, and now the Eastern Conference final shifts back to Pittsburgh tied 2-2.
The Tampa Bay Lightning needed their best game of the Eastern Conference final in Game 4, because through three games the series looked as though it belonged to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even in Game 1, a game the Penguins lost, Pittsburgh looked like the better team but simply weren’t able to solve Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy in. And though Game 4 was undoubtedly the best game Tampa Bay has played in the series, the 4-3 victory didn’t come without a scare.
That said, out of the gate, it seemed like it would be all Lightning, all the time. On the very first shift of the game, only 27 seconds into Friday’s contest, Victor Hedman let go a shot from the Pittsburgh blueline that was tipped in front by Lightning winger Ryan Callahan and past Penguins netminder Matt Murray. Callahan’s second goal of the post-season, and the Lightning’s fast-paced start, was a sign of what much of the first 40 minutes would hold.
Through two periods of play, the Lightning mustered 30 shots on goal — the most they’ve had in the series — and they looked nearly unstoppable on the rush. In what was the best two frames of hockey the Lightning have played not just in the conference final, but throughout the playoffs, Tampa Bay showcased their ability to counter-attack, showed the lethal puck-moving ability that can make their power play so dangerous and made the Penguins pay for even the slightest mistake. Callahan’s goal was followed by markers by Andrej Sustr, Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson, who was lucky to have been in the lineup following a puck to the face during warmup.
Johnson’s goal, which made it 4-0 Lightning, was a significant one not only in that it stretched the Lightning lead to four goals, but because it signalled a goaltending change for the Penguins and would end up being the game-winning goal. With less than three minutes remaining in the second frame, Johnson drove the net during a Lightning rush before catching a Nikita Kucherov pass in the shins. The puck bounced off of Johnson and past Murray.
Murray would stay in goal for the remainder of the second period, but the 21-year-old upstart netminder, who has been one of the post-season’s best stories, was chased from the Penguins’ goal to start the third frame. And though it can’t be entirely credited to the goaltending change, the entrance of Marc-Andre Fleury, who was seeing his first action in nearly two months, saw Pittsburgh have their most jump of Game 4.
Early in the third period, Phil Kessel let go a beautiful shot that found its way past Vasilevskiy. Almost exactly 10 minutes later, Evgeni Malkin gave the Penguins an even greater hope when he cut the Lightning lead to 4-2. And the game entered full-on frenzy-mode when Chris Kuntiz brought the Penguins within one with 6:22 remaining in the third period. That’s as close as Pittsburgh would get, however, as the frantic finish saw them come close but unable to find one more goal to tie the contest.
The Lightning’s inability to bury the Penguins might be concerning to some, but it wasn’t until Malkin’s goal that the tide really turned. Early in the third, the Lightning were able to get chances of their own instead of the usual ice-tilt that’s seen when a team is defending a four-goal lead. The few saves that Fleury did make weren’t difference-makers, but they allowed the Penguins the chance to get back into the contest. That said, though, the way the Lightning played for 50 minutes of Game 4 bodes well for the remainder of a series that through three games looked as though it would see Pittsburgh moving on sooner rather than later.
There are important questions to be answered heading into Sunday’s Game 5, however. The most pressing one for the Lightning and coach Jon Cooper is whether or not he can get his team to continue the showing from the first two and a half frames of Game 4 or if his team falls into back into the play that saw Pittsburgh dominate most of Games 1 through 3 and the final 10 minutes of Game 4. If Cooper’s bunch continues to play as they did through much of Game 4, it could be a second-straight Stanley Cup final for Tampa Bay, but he’ll have to ensure that’s the case.
And for the Penguins, the questions are just as big. First and foremost, what’s the status of Trevor Daley, the Pittsburgh blueliner who was injured in the second period and did not return to the contest? And what happens now between the pipes? Murray has played well for the bulk of the post-season, but he’s shown shakiness twice during the conference final. Does that give Penguins coach Mike Sullivan some pause in choosing his starter for Game 5?
Regardless of the answers, a series that once looked like Pittsburgh’s to lose has now been evened up in such a way that the best-of-three to come seems as though it could go either way. The Lightning had to answer in Game 4 and they did, even if there was a scare. And if the Penguins don’t respond in kind, it will be they, not Tampa Bay, who face the first elimination game of the third-round series.