PITTSBURGH, Pa. – With an audible giggle, Marc-Andre Fleury could only shake his head and smile when recalling two of his most acrobatic saves in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff-opening win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning players were shaking their heads, too—in frustration as Fleury stood tall and backstopped the Penguins’ 3-0 victory on Wednesday night.
Fleury made 32 saves—including a stop on Ryan Malone with his back to the play—to stymie a Lightning team that finished second in the Eastern Conference with 247 goals.
His effort provided the Penguins’ slow-starting offence time to get in gear.
Alex Kovalev and Arron Asham scored third-period goals 18 seconds apart to help the Penguins win the first playoff game in their new arena. Fleury was the star, and was treated that way afterward, leaving he ice to fans chanting his last name and “MVP! MVP.”
“Whatever needs to be done,” Fleury said of his fifth playoff shutout that pushed him to within one of tying Tom Barrasso’s franchise record. “I just tried to do my thing, and the players up front got some big goals for us and it worked out all right.”
For all their offence, the Lightning’s stars—from Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and on down to Malone—couldn’t solve Fleury in the first playoff meeting between the teams.
Game 2 is at Pittsburgh on Friday.
“Fleury was outstanding, there’s no question about it,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “I just saw some clips of the replays and I still can’t believe he made some of those saves.”
Fleury’s best stop came 11 minutes in. He contorted himself to stop Brett Clark’s shot from the point that was deflected in front by Dominic Moore, who was so sure the puck had gone in he had already raised his arms to celebrate. Then, with Fleury’s back to the play, the flopping goalie raised his leg to stop Malone’s attempt to flip the puck in from the left side.
“I thought it was behind me, so I just tried to do something that I do in practice once in a while,” Fleury said.
He wasn’t done.
In the opening minute of the second, Fleury stopped Stamkos’ shot from the left point and then reached back to get his blocker arm to deny Lecavalier, who got off a clean shot on a nifty play. Getting the rebound on his backhand, Lecavalier set himself up by slipping the puck through his legs to his forehand.
“I was in hot water once again a little bit,” Fleury said. “He went around my leg, and that’s all I had left was my arm. I just got a piece of it.”
Malone isn’t one to look back on the missed opportunities or the big saves.
“Nothing to get frustrated about here,” Malone said.
The Lightning did question the disparity in penalties, with the Penguins having six power-play opportunities to Tampa Bay’s one.
Boucher sidestepped a question about the officiating, saying, “I’m never surprised by anything.”
Penguins defenceman Zbynek Michalek wasn’t penalized after he appeared to accidentally crack Martin St. Louis across the face with his stick in the second period. It happened after the players collided in the Lightning zone, and as both were falling to the ice.
St. Louis was livid immediately after it happened, and didn’t speak to the media after the game.
Chris Kunitz sealed the win by scoring into an empty net in the final minute. Defenceman Brooks Orpik, who had two assists, opened the game with a heavy and clean check Stamkos.
With Sidney Crosby watching from the coaching box upstairs, the Penguins opened the playoffs much like they did in finishing the last half of the regular season proving they can win without their captain, who continues to recover from a concussion.
The fourth-seeded Penguins seized the momentum by outshooting the fifth-seeded Lightning 18-7 in the second period, and carried it into the third.
Kovalev made it 1-0 at 6:05 of the third on a bit of a broken play after he was tripped in the corner by Tampa Bay’s Pavel Kubina. With the crowd booing the lack ofa penalty call, Penguins forward James Neal got the puck at the left point and fed Kovalev, who one-timed a shot shortly after he got back up.
“You’ve got to get up,” Kovalev said. “Sometimes it makes you mad and hopefully you get one on the next chance. … You can’t ask for a better ending.”
With the arena still buzzing, Asham doubled the lead with an end-to-end rush. Carrying the puck up the right wing, Asham faked a shot before cutting around the net to draw goalie Dwayne Roloson out of position. Asham’s first attempt to wrap in the puck failed, but he converted on a second chance by flipping the puck into the open left side.
NOTES: In meeting the Lightning for the first time in the playoffs, the Penguins have faced every Eastern Conference team in the post-season except for Atlanta. … This is the third straight year the Penguins are the No. 4 seed. … Tampa Bay entered the post-season with a 26-25 playoff record, but has gone 3-8 in losing its past two series. … St. Louis and Lecavalier are the only two players left from the Lightning’s previous post-season appearance.