The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning met on Wednesday night with the lead in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals on the line. Earlier in the day it had been announced that Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop would not be playing and that once again put Andrei Vasilevskiy under the spotlight, the Lightning’s backup goaltender. But where he had been solid in limited play earlier in the playoffs, on Wednesday night the Pens got the best of the young net-minder as they scored four times for a 4-2 victory.
Sidney Crosby lit the lamp for what would end up being the game winner. About halfway through the third period and already up 2-1, the Pens picked up a power-play opportunity. Crosby scored his fifth goal of the playoffs from the left circle on a 4-3 advantage. The goal seemed to rattle Vasilevskiy, a passionate player who clearly wants to experience top-level success even at this early point in his career.
But while his obvious motivation plays well for his future success in the National Hockey League, the Lightning’s chances are fading in the 2016 playoffs. Without Bishop and Steve Stamkos, Tampa Bay are a team in search of answers. They are only down one game in the series, but this Pittsburgh team is the best we’ve seen for the last few months now. They clearly peaked during the latter stages of the regular season; they followed that up in the first round of the playoffs with a 5-game series win, and then they ousted the Cup-favorite Washington Capitals in the second round.
The Pens are truly a team ahead of the pack in the Eastern Conference. A team depleted of their best players, like Tampa Bay, is unlikely to make it just to a Game-7 scenario in the conference finals. While Bishop is day-to-day and could return, it’s not just a matter of returning to the lineup but a matter of returning and playing at a level high enough to beat these Penguins. In truth, even if Stamkos and Bishop both returned playing well, I would still consider the Pens clear favorites.
Game 4 goes on Friday night from Florida, and it’s one that has to be approached as a must-win situation for the Lightning. If the Pens are able to get out to a 3-1 lead, then they will be heading home for Game 5 with a chance to clinch and a chance to move on to the Stanley Cup Finals as early as Sunday.
I’m thinking Pittsburgh in five at this point and with the other series knotted at 1-1, the Blues and Sharks might be in for a lengthy battle. That makes these Penguins the bright light among the four teams remaining as the Crosby and Malkin duo start to zone in on their second Stanley Cup.