TAMPA — The Penguins may not be a mental hurdle for the Tampa Bay Lightning to push past.
But it sure feels that way.
In recent years, Pittsburgh has had its way with Tampa Bay, and though the gap may have narrowed a bit this year, the Lightning still have not found a way to beat the Penguins.
Friday's matinee 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh in front of an announced crowd of 19,065 at The Forum was the eighth consecutive game Tampa Bay has lost to the Penguins in the past three seasons, including two this year. Tampa Bay's last victory against the Penguins came Nov. 17, 2011.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 21 shots for his 26th career shutout, while Chris Kunitz scored twice and Sidney Crosby had three assists as Tampa Bay saw its seven-game home winning streak snapped, one short of a franchise record. Ben Bishop stopped 26 shots in the loss, allowing two or fewer goals for the 16th time in his 20 starts.
Despite playing a sound defensive game, keeping Pittsburgh's top players from having the run of play, the Lightning did not do enough to find a way to come away with a positive result, something that has happened frequently in recent matchups.
“They're one of the top teams in the East and have been for a number of years for a good reason. ... For us to be a top team, you have to beat the top teams,'' center Tyler Johnson said after the Lightning were shut out for the fourth time this season and second in four games. “... I thought we played pretty well. We stuck to our game plan. We just didn't score enough goals.''
It was Tampa Bay's third loss on home ice in 13 games, with two of those coming against the Penguins, the first a last-second 5-4 setback Oct. 12 in another game in which the Lightning played well enough to win only to do just enough to come away with a loss.
The past two results, however, have shown that the Lightning appear to have closed the gap against the Penguins.
“If you're watching these (past two meetings) I think anybody (could have) won these games. So I think we've taken huge steps and I like the fact that our guys were (ticked) off in the room that they lost the game,'' Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But I don't think there's any sort of mental block about playing Pittsburgh. They are a good team. I don't think anybody picked us to be a good team, nobody did, and I think we have become a pretty good team.
“So I wouldn't sit here and say Pittsburgh has our number or anything like that. It was two good hockey teams, they just happened to come out on top.''
Tampa Bay was forced to play from behind after a quick transition play in the neutral zone allowed Crosby to find Kunitz on a cross-ice pass for a quick-snap shot past a sliding Bishop 6:53 into the game.
Though Tampa Bay had more shots either miss the net or get blocked (30 total), there were some quality chances among the 21 shots. Nikita Kucherov had a breakaway chance turned aside 8:34 into the second period and Richard Panik had a chance alone from above the crease on the power play with one second remaining in the second period only to see Fleury — who was pulled in his previous start — turn them aside.
“I just tried to shoot it right away,'' Panik said. “It's easy to look at it now, but I probably should go high. I tried to go five-hole and it's too bad it didn't go in.''
Brandon Sutter increased Pittsburgh's lead to 2-0 when he came around the net looking to make a pass out front, but instead the puck bounced off the skate of Victor Hedman and caromed into the net at 8:27 of the third before Kunitz iced the game with an empty-net goal with 1:43 remaining.
“I didn't think we gave them much,'' Hedman said. “I thought we matched them pretty well. We were on top of them the whole game. We have some chances, they have some chances, so I thought it wasn't even matchup. They put their chances away.''
TXT Footer: firstname.lastname@example.org
TXT Footer: (813) 259-7835
TXT Footer: Twitter: @erlendssonTBO