PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t recognize some of the Tampa Bay players. Worse still, the Penguins didn’t recognize their own game against an opponent they figured to beat.
Steven Stamkos scored his 46th goal to edge within one of NHL leader Sidney Crosby and the Lightning prevented Pittsburgh from gaining ground in the Eastern Conference race, beating the lethargic Penguins 2-0 on Wednesday night.
Crosby and the Penguins couldn’t find the net on a five-minute power play in the first period resulting from just-recalled defenceman Matt Lashoff’s boarding penalty and went on to lose their fourth in six games after winning their previous two.
“It was pretty bad. There’s no sugar coating it or trying to make something positive out of it, we didn’t do anything that was positive,” Crosby said. “We weren’t ready to play. We thought we were going to play a team that laid down and isn’t going to go to the playoffs, and we were just going to show up. Clearly, it didn’t happen.”
Clearly, coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t happy, either. He called an 8:30 a.m. practice for Thursday, a previously scheduled day off.
The Penguins missed an opportunity to take a three-point lead in the Atlantic Division over idle New Jersey, losing to a team they had beaten in five of their previous six games. The Lightning had lost 14 of their previous 18 overall and were playing their second game in two nights after losing 3-2 in Columbus on Tuesday.
“With all due respect to them, there’s a handful of guys I haven’t even heard of,” Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “They’ve got nothing to play for and they come in and outwork us in our building. It’s a little concerning.”
Lightning goalie Mike Smith allowed at least four goals in each of his previous five games in which he played more than a handful of minutes – and 22 overall in those five – only to shut out the Penguins on 27 shots. Smith hadn’t had a shutout since Dec. 5 against the Islanders, but he has two shutouts in six career games against Pittsburgh.
“It’s been a long time since I got out and played the puck that much and had that swagger to my game,” Smith said.
Martin St. Louis somehow missed a wide-open net in the first period, a few minutes after the Lightning killed off Lashoff’s penalty for driving Ruslan Fedotenko into the boards, but later set up goals by Stamkos and Steve Downie.
“We really got a lot of momentum off that five-minute penalty kill,” Stamkos said. “That’s tough to go down for five minutes against a team like that.”
Fedotenko was shaken up and briefly left the ice, but returned later in the period.
Stamkos put the Lightning up 1-0 with a power-play goal 17 minutes in the first, a one-timer from the left circle that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t stop. Stamkos tied Alex Ovechkin of Washington for second place in the NHL with his third goal in four games.
Can he catch and surpass the NHL’s two biggest stars for the goal-scoring title?
“It’s something that’s obviously on your mind, you get asked about it a lot, so it would definitely be nice,” Stamkos said. “We got five games left and whatever happens, happens.”
Downie made it 2-0 only 29 seconds into the second period, taking St. Louis’ giveback pass before snapping off a shot from the right circle for his 22nd goal. Stamkos got an assist, giving him 88 points.
The Penguins lead New Jersey 95-94 for the division lead and at least the No. 3 seeding in the conference playoffs. The Sabres passed by both teams and moved into second place in the conference by beating Florida 6-2, giving them 96 points.
Making it worse for the Penguins, Downie played a major role.
When the Penguins won 2-1 in Tampa on March 14, Downie dragged Crosby to the ice awkwardly with his legs early in the first period, with Crosby looking as if he might be seriously hurt, although he later returned to the game. Still, the play upset the Penguins, although there was no apparent retaliation.
NOTES: The Penguins were 0-for-4 on the power play. … F Evgeni Malkin (bruised right foot) missed his fifth consecutive game and seventh in eight games, while D Sergei Gonchar (strep throat) sat out his fourth in a row. … Crosby failed to score a goal for the eighth time in nine games. … Pittsburgh hadn’t been shut out in 35 games since a 2-0 loss at New Jersey on Dec. 30.