Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning looked like the “Hunger Games”.
And the odds appeared to be somewhat in Tampa’s favor.
Tampa came out looking like a team that was well rested, not rusty, having last played on May 8. Just 18 seconds in, Victor Hedman ran a shot off the crossbar as a preview of what the Penguins were about to face.
Matt Murray made the first spectacular save of the game. Jonathan Drouin in on a rush flips the puck past Kris Letang who fans on the attempt to knock it out of the air. Drouin picks the puck back up and zips it over to Ondrej Palat. Murray snags the shot by Palat out the air with his glove.
About a minute later, Ryan Callahan boarded Kris Letang who appeared to be knocked out cold. Letang stayed down on the ice for a few minutes before skating off with the trainer. He returned to the bench after about 10 minutes of game play.
Callahan was not tossed out of the game, but did receive a 5 minute major penalty for boarding. The Penguins managed only 4 shots on goal during the major.
After the game, Letang was not made available to speak with reporters. Coach Mike Sullivan stated, “[Letang] is fine.”
Callahan did take to the podium to address the hit, “I’m trying to ride him in there on the forecheck. Unfortunately he turns at the last second. I’m committed when he turns his head, and his body is pretty low. I’m trying to pin him and in that split second I can’t really make a decision.
“Unfortunately, I think the position that he was in made it worse than it was. It was good to see him come back. Obviously you don’t want to see anybody injured, and that’s not what you’re trying to do. That’s not the way I play.
“I’ve never been fined or suspended. I take a lot of pride in that, to be an honest player, and it was good to see that he came back.”
It got worse from there, injury wise. Next up was Ben Bishop.
After misplaying a puck in the trapezoid and then moving around frantically to get back in position, he appeared to catch his right skate and then falls with his full body weight onto his left leg. He immediately grabs his leg and writhes with pain.
Bishop had to be stretchered off the ice. He was replaced by backup Andrei Vasilevskiy, and third string emergency goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis dressed and appeared on the bench by midway through the second period.
After the game, Jon Cooper gave a brief quasi-update on Bishop’s status, “[Bishop] went in and we got him checked out. He had x-rays done and everything came back negative, so we’re hoping for the best … he’s definitely hurt, but there’s nothing structurally wrong right now. That was a big relief.”
Alex Killorn described Bishop as he was being taken off the ice, “He didn’t say anything. He just kind of looked. You could tell he was in a lot of pain. It’s one of those moments where he’s been so great for us, and no one knew what was happening. No one knew what was wrong with him. And for him to get carted off like that, it’s typically pretty serious.
“But I just went up to him and said, we got this. Keep it up, buddy. He just looked at me, and I don’t think he said anything, but just kind of lifted the team up when we could come together and get a goal at the end of the period there.”
With 1:14 to go in the first, the Lightning struck first.
It was Hedman again. This time with an incredible stretch pass to Alex Killorn at the top of the neutral zone. Killorn flatout beats Olli Maatta to rush, deke a couple times, and beat Murray. Lightning up 1-0.
“[Maatta] let’s Killorn get behind him on that one, and we would like him not to allow — not to let him get behind him,” said Mike Sullivan. “Ideally, we have to have some awareness. Tampa does a good job, when there’s any separation from our forecheck, they stretch the ice pretty well.
“So our defensemen have to be aware and make sure that we stay on the right side of people … I think, in that instance, I think Olli positionally could have been in a better position so he wasn’t vulnerable.”
The period was nearly over when Chris Kunitz smashed Tyler Johnson into the end boards. Johnson crumpled into a heap, and had to be helped off the ice by teammates and trainers.
Looking at the video, it appears Kunitz and Johnson’s knees make contact, but it doesn’t look malicious on Kunitz’s part. Right as Johnson dishes off the puck, he turns quickly and faces Kunitz as he’s coming in, and then their knees make contact.
Johnson was not on the bench to start the second, but did return midway through period to finish the game.
Evgeni Malkin was whistled for hooking Hedman less than two minutes after the puck droped.
Valtteri Filppula takes the first shot of the power play and Murray kicks out a rebound in the general vicinity of Ondrej Palat. While falling, Palat chips the puck into the net as Murray attempts to slide over to make the save.
Lightning now up by 2.
Despite the Penguins outshooting the Lighting 19 to 15 in the second period, Tampa made the best of their chances.
Palat, Filppula and Jonathan Drouin jumped on a turnover by Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the defensive zone. The three hauled it up the ice with Dumoulin as the only defender back. Right as the defenseman splays out on the ice, Palat passes the puck over to Drouin who one times it past Murray.
Tampa takes a 3-0 lead.
Hedman is whistled for a tripping penalty with 1:11 left in the period.
On their two previous power plays, the Penguins came up empty with 7 shots on goal. The third time was a charm.
Pittsburgh plays keep away with the puck until it reaches Sidney Crosby on the side boards. With his back to the rest of the players, he passes through his legs, and directly to Patric Hornqvist on the faceoff dot. He ripped the shot past Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning’s lead is back to two goals as the teams skate into the locker room.
Pittsburgh came out as a completely different team in the third. They poured on the pressure as Tampa had done in the first two periods against them; racking up 16 shots on goal against the 21-year-old Vasilevskiy.
With less than five minutes to go, Palat is assessed a two-minute boarding penalty for his hit on Dumoulin.
The defenseman dazed was on the ice, and skated off with the help of his teammates and training staff. He did not return to the game.
Mike Sullivan did not have an update on Dumoulin’s status, “I have not spoken with our medical staff about Brian Dumoulin.”
The only comment he had for both the Letang hit and the Dumoulin hit was, “As far as the hits, they’re hits from behind.”
Malkin told reporters he felt both hits were “dirty.”
This play is a bit more tricky when it comes to supplemental discipline.
Palat is definitely riding Dumoulin into the end boards; however, it appears he tries to pull back to lessen the severity of the hit and roll off to the side. At the same time, Dumoulin is bending forward, and whatever contact is made with Palat speeds up his crash into the boards.
From Palat’s point of view:
Lightning LW Ondrej Palat on his hit against Penguins D Brian Dumoulin: pic.twitter.com/TbZWcv2BVG
— Seth Rorabaugh (@emptynetters) May 14, 2016
It’s a tough one that the Department of Player Safety has to figure out before Game 2 on Sunday.
On the resulting power play for the Penguins, the Penguins are unable to get anything going with only 3 shots on goal.
The Penguins made one final push with the goaltender pulled in the final seconds of the period, but Vasilevskiy stayed calm and made a series of saves to give Tampa the 3-1 win in Pittsburgh.
After the game, Sullivan agreed with Ian Cole’s assessment that the team didn’t play well enough in front of Murray to get the win.
“I agree. I don’t think they saw our best today,” said Sullivan. “I know this team has set a high standard for their play. You know, I don’t think it was — I don’t think it was our best game … we had stretches of some really good things.
“There are a lot of positives that we can pull out of this … I don’t think we gave up a lot of chances, but the quality of the chances that we gave up were high, and for me, that’s the lesson learned. That’s what we discussed with our players after the game is we’ve got to make better decisions with the puck in some of the key areas of the rink.”
As for Jon Cooper, the winning coach of the night, he talked about Vasilevskiy coming in for Bishop in big games before, “I know it was a year ago, but for someone as young as he is, he’s already played in the Stanley Cup Final, and he was called on in the biggest moments last year. Talk about pushing somebody a little bit down the learning curve a little faster than we wanted to.
“… you never want to lose Bishop, but nobody on the bench was sitting there thinking, oh, we’re nervous Vasilevskiy’s going in. We’ve kind of run with this tandem all year, and he’s a rock, and he was that for us tonight, especially in the third.”
The teams have two days off before meeting again in Pittsburgh for Game 2 on Monday.