PITTSBURGH — Games like Saturday night’s against the Penguins are the type the Lightning have been able to pull victories from in the past.
Finishing its season-opening, three-game road trip on the back end of its first back-to-back set of games, Tampa Bay was far from its best. Backup goaltender Brian Elliott kept the Lightning in the game early, a number of turnovers that led to rushes the other way didn’t really hurt, and they went into the final period trailing by just one goal.
But their sloppy play caught up with them, and a one-goal game turned into a rout quickly, as the Penguins sent them home 6-2 losers at PPG Paints Arena.
“It’s early on in the season,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “But at the same time, it’s frustrating when we feel like we were right there, especially going into the third. But they’re a great team, and we’ll learn from this.”
The Lightning (1-2-0) learned many things from their first road trip of the season. After dropping two of three, they know they’re far from where they want to be. They’ve struggled possessing the puck, they’ve committed too many turnovers, and against playoff-caliber teams like the Penguins and the Rangers, those mistakes were exposed.
“I think it’s a bit of a wake-up call for us,” center Brayden Point said. “It’s tough to win in this league, and I think this road trip shows that, and we’ve got to be better.”
Said coach Jon Cooper, “We have lots of work to do. We shot ourselves in the foot (Saturday). And they took advantage, and that’s what good teams will do. So we’ve just got to learn from it and move on.”
The Lightning allowed 22 high-danger scoring chances, including 18 in 5-on-5 play. Elliott, making his first start of the season, faced an onslaught of shots. In the first two periods, with Tampa Bay trailing 2-1, he was his team’s best player.
“He was fantastic,” Point said. “I think he was pretty much the only guy who had a great game for us.”
Then, the Penguins scored two goals in 82 seconds early in the third period to open up the game.
Then, Penguins defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph flung the puck through the neutral zone to forward Kasperi Kapanen on the left wing. After getting behind Lightning center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Penguins forward Jeff Carter took a pass from Kapanen and backhanded a shot across the crease, off the far post and in.
“One team was putting the puck on the stick, and one team wasn’t,” Cooper said. “When you play in the best league in the world, you’re going to have to execute, and right now we’re doing it at times and (at) times are not.
“It’s a collective effort. We’re all in this together. Guys are working hard. It’s just not working smart right now. We’ve got a talent level better than what we’re showing with some of our execution.”
The Penguins have had the Lightning’s number of late. They are 17-6-3 in their last 26 home games against Tampa Bay and have won three of the teams’ last four meetings by an 18-10 margin dating to a 5-1 season-opening victory that spoiled the Lightning’s Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony last year.
The Penguins were faster to the puck and quicker up the ice. Their transition game was fluid and kept the Lightning on their heels all night. And once Elliott ran out of magic, the game got ugly.
“We started turning the puck over way too much,” Point said. “When you have all that speed and all that skill coming at you, it’s tough to defend when you’re just giving them rushes.”
After stopping 27 of the 29 shots he faced in the first two periods, Elliott allowed three goals on 15 shots in the third. After Point’s goal made it 5-2, Cooper pulled Elliott with 4:30 left for an extra attacker. But forward Rickard Rakell scored into an empty net to kill any remaining Lightning hopes.
“Every single year we’re a different team, and we have to find ourselves a bit,” Cooper said. “But the big thing is — and it comes right down to it — if we’re not going to manage the puck and we’re going to turn it over, especially against the teams like this, it’ll be a long night for you.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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