Game recap time! The NHL season kicked off with the Tampa Bay Lightning raising their Stanley Cup Championship banner at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The arena was packed with Lightning fans anticipating a big win from the defending champs, and the Lightning were set up for one. The Penguins entered the game missing their three top players. Sidney Crosby is close to returning to the team after wrist surgery, but he isn’t quite there. Evgeni Malkin is slated to miss two months after knee surgery. And finally, Jake Guentzel has been away from the team after testing positive for Covid-19.
Adding to the anticipation was the fact that the game would be the first to be aired nationally on ESPN since 2004. Unfortunately, the game did not live up to the billing. The Lightning came out flat, the Penguins capitalized on their opportunities, and the defending Champs were defeated 6-2 on home ice.
From the opening face-off, it was clear that the Penguins had more energy. They were winning puck battles and out-chancing the Lightning. Though the first period ended scoreless, Pittsburgh outshot Tampa 14-7. The Lightning showed flashes of their trademark puck movement, but the effort was not there to match the scrappy Pens.
The second period saw the game’s first goal, with Pittsburgh drawing first blood. Penguins center Jeff Carter intercepted Andrei Vasilevskiy’s clearing attempt behind the net and threaded a perfect pass to an open Danton Heinen in the high slot. Later in the second (though not much later), Pittsburgh added to their lead when Brian Boyle took a beautiful area pass from Sam Lafferty. Boyle is an excellent story, making the team after playing through the pre-season on a PTO.
The listless play for Tampa Bay continued into the third, with Pens center Dominik Simon sneaking a harmless-looking shot by Vasilevskiy. Lightning coach Jon Cooper gambled big shortly after by pulling Vasilevskiy for the extra attacker. This came with 6 minutes to play, and the Lightning down three goals. It appeared to pay off, with Anthony Cirelli tipping a Victor Hedman shot past Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry. That hope was short lived though, with Pittsburgh’s Teddy Blueger scoring into the open net and restoring the three-goal lead. Tampa would add another goal, but it wouldn’t matter. Pittsburgh added two more empty-net goals, and Tampa’s big night was effectively spoiled.
Despite the hype, this was a disappointing game by the Lightning. They came out flat and could not get a spark. The Lightning didn’t truly test Jarry until late in the second, when they got their first power-play opportunity. Though they showed flashes of life, it was fleeting. Ultimately, this is a game that should be learned from, but not lingered on. The Lightning should be just fine. Cooper is a good coach, and they still have a stupid amount of talent on the roster. It was just sad to see that effort on such a big stage.
None of this is to take away from the Penguins. They came into a hostile building as huge underdogs and took care of business. The Pens played high-energy, opportunistic hockey, and it paid off. If they can put forth that effort on a nightly basis once their star players return, reports of Pittsburgh’s decline may prove to be premature.