PITTSBURGH — These are the things that are supposed to cripple a team.
You give up a goal with 0.7 seconds left in the first period.
You fall behind two goals to the highest-scoring team in the NHL since December.
You give up another goal in the final minute of the second period to fall behind 3-2 heading into the third.
You have a shot that caroms off a post and rolls across the goal line yet somehow doesn’t kick in off the opposing netminder’s skate and into the net.
And then, apparently because you’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, none of that matters.
Because all of those things happened to Tampa Bay in Game 5 at the Consol Energy Center on Sunday night and the Lightning still found a way to squeak out a 4-3 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins that gives them a chance to advance to their second straight Stanley Cup finals with a win in Game 6 on Tuesday night in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning now lead these Eastern Conference finals 3-2.
The fact that the winner came 53 seconds into overtime when a Jason Garrison shot bounced in off Tyler Johnson‘s backside was just another indication that whatever you think about resiliency and determination, maybe you just don’t know anything at all, at least when it comes to the Lightning.
“I thought he was going for my head again,” said Johnson, who has now scored back-to-back winners without actually touching the puck with his stick, having scored the Game 4 winner when the puck deflected in off his skate.
“I wasn’t sure if it hit me or not, but I was just more excited to see it in the back of the net.”
Johnson is still showing the ill effects of having taken a puck to the face during warm-ups before Game 4. He started that game with a cage and later used a full visor; by Game 5, he went back to a half-visor.
And there he was in the game’s most important moment, crowding the crease in front of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“He’s a winner,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Winners don’t back down.”
So much went so right for the Penguins at critical moments in Game 5 that it just seemed it was all going to fall into place for them.
Fleury, making his first start since March 31, was solid, even if he didn’t get tested much, in the first half of the game.
But the Penguins couldn’t find a way to beat Fleury’s counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, at the critical moment to put the game out of reach.
And when Fleury, who started in place of rookie sensation Matt Murray, needed to make a big stop to keep his team ahead, he showed the kind of rust you would expect from someone — even a top-flight goalie like Fleury — who has been out of game action for almost two months.
“I was really, really excited,” said Fleury, who allowed four goals on just 25 shots. “It’s been awhile since I played. I was really looking forward to it. I’m just disappointed it ended the way it did.”
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan refused to provide a postmortem on Fleury’s play, saying he needed time to digest it. But it would be a shock — not to mention an admission that switching goalies in the first place had been a mistake — if Fleury is not back in net in Game 6 with the Penguins’ season on the line.
“You don’t make these decisions in a vacuum; you make them based on the fact that they probably look at this and think if we’re going to win a Stanley Cup, we’re probably going to win it with the guy who’s had a Stanley Cup in his hands,” longtime NHL goaltender Glenn Healy said.
“I think the same decisions and the same reasons for your decision that you talked about, debated with all your coaching staff, your management staff, will be the same reasons that you go to him for Game 6.”
Both teams have talked so much this season and throughout the playoffs about overcoming adversity and not letting a bad bounce or missed call lead to buckling.
But the fact of the matter is that one of these very good, very deep teams will be going home in a matter of days, and the winner will have a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Sunday’s game marked the first without Trevor Daley, who is lost to the Penguins for the rest of the season with a broken ankle. The results were not necessarily negative: The Penguins blocked 22 shots and Daley’s replacement, Olli Maatta, had a nice bounce-back game after being a healthy scratch for three straight contests. Still, the fact that Kris Letang, the undisputed leader along the blue line and a guy who is going to have do even more in Daley’s absence, was minus-4 and took a minor penalty is not encouraging.
The Penguins’ defeat marked the first time this season they lost a game in which they were leading after two periods, following 46 straight wins.
That it was this Lightning team that managed to be the first to put such a blemish on the Penguins’ record shouldn’t be a surprise, even if the manner in which they did so still leaves us more than a little mystified.
“I get to watch them 100-plus times a year,” Cooper said. “So it’s a lot of fun to be their coach. I’m not saying they don’t give you ulcers, but there’s a quiet calm about that group.
“There’s just a lot of confidence in that group, and they knew what they were doing.”