Lightning’s late rally not enough against surging Penguins

PITTSBURGH — The Lightning needed a remarkable run of all-around textbook hockey over the past month in order to clinch a postseason spot with a half-dozen games remaining.

This season’s trip to the playoffs, their 10th in 11 seasons, might be worth celebrating more than some of the others, because there were times not long ago it looked like the team might be playing golf in mid-April.

But the Lightning showed great toughness in battling back, going 10-1-1 in their 12 games before Saturday to move from a team on the playoff fringe to one that sealed a spot on Friday.

“We set a goal for ourselves before training camp starts, and that’s to make the playoffs,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “And you look at some of the times throughout the year, there’s probably a lot of people that were doubting this group’s capability of doing that. So I give high praise for our guys in here that dug deep and played really good hockey here down the stretch and put ourselves in a position to compete for the Stanley Cup.

“It might be something that’s taken for granted around here with the success that we’ve had, but it’s something to be proud of, and I am proud of the group.”

Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Penguins — just the Lightning’s second in regulation since March 9 — might have been deflating, but it had a playoff feel to it. Pittsburgh after the game pulled into the Eastern Conference’s final playoff position after being nine points out as recently last week.

The Lightning (43-27-7, 93 points) struggled to match the Penguins’ urgency over the first two periods, trailing 4-1 going to the third. But they rallied to tie the game on Stamkos’ second power-play goal of the day with 9:15 left.

Ultimately, Tampa Bay allowed too many second chances in front of its net, and Pittsburgh’s Michael Bunting came free of defenseman Darren Raddysh and jumped on a rebound to score the winning goal with 5:28 remaining.

The Lightning outshot the Penguins 12-4 in the third period and had a golden opportunity to tie the game when Marcus Pettersson’s delay-of-game penalty gave them a 6-on-4 power play (with an extra attacker and an empty net) for the final 1:36. But the Lightning managed just one shot on goal, five of their attempts blocked.

“I can sit here after the fact and lament how we played the first two periods,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But these guys have pushed so hard for so long now, and we’re playing a team that has put themselves right back in it. ... That game was definitely a “no refunds” game for the fans, because it was pretty darn exciting. Disappointed with the outcome of the game, naturally, but there was a lot of good things to take away, especially in that third period of a pretty gutty effort to come back the way they did.”

After the Penguins ran out to a 2-0 lead on goals by stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it looked like the Lightning might be in for a long night. Stamkos scored his first goal with 7:45 remaining in the second, but the Penguins responded quickly with two goals in 2:18 to make it 4-1 going to the second intermission.

Both were goals that Andrei Vasilevskiy, who allowed just one goal in four of his previous six starts, would have liked back. First, Kris Letang’s shot from just inside the blue line leaked between the goaltender’s legs and into the net. Then, Malkin scored his second goal of the game on a rebound of his own shot from in front after Vasilevskiy lost his stick.

But Nick Paul scored his fourth goal in three games 25 seconds into the third, snapping a shot from the left circle. Anthony Duclair cut the deficit to one on a wrister from the slot off a feed from Nikita Kucherov, whose third straight three-point game gave him a league-leading 136 for the season.

Stamkos’ tying goal came when he found free ice at the bottom of the left circle and took a feed from Victor Hedman for a one-timer that silenced the Pittsburgh crowd.

“We showed once again that when we play the way we want to play, we play north, when we execute passes and execute plays, we’re a tough team to play against,” Hedman said. “You’re not going to get away with this in the playoffs, and you’ve got to be ready to go from the start. (Saturday) was one of those games where we kind of exhaled a little bit, but it’s human nature (after clinching), probably.”

There was a scary moment in the third period, when Lightning defenseman Haydn Fleury collided with referee Steve Kozari near center ice. Fleury left under his own power but did not return to the game. Kozari was wheeled off on a stretcher. The the NHL said in a statement after the game he “is conscious and alert, has use of all of his extremities and is expected to make a full recovery.”

Playoff tickets on sale Friday

Single-game tickets for Lightning first-round home playoff games will go on sale to the general public Friday at 10 a.m. at Bolt For Life members will have presale access earlier in the week. Subscribers to the Lightning Insider newsletter ( will have exclusive access to presale tickets Thursday at 10 a.m.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.