PITTSBURGH — The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday night may have come at a heavy price.
Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop left the ice on a stretcher in the first period after injuring his left leg. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 25 stops while filling in and the Lighting took advantage of some sloppy miscues by Pittsburgh’s defence to take away home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series.
Game 2 is Monday night in Pittsburgh.
Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin scored for Tampa Bay, and the Lightning kept Pittsburgh’s dynamic offence under wraps for long stretches.
Patric Hornqvist picked up his sixth goal of the playoffs for the Penguins. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray finished with 17 saves, but was put in a tough spot several times because of defensive miscues in front of him.
The Lightning dropped just two games while sprinting to their second straight appearance in the conference finals despite missing franchise centre Steven Stamkos and top defenceman Anton Stralman, both of whom remain out indefinitely with health issues. Now Tampa Bay faces the prospect of journeying forward without Bishop, their 6-foot-7 anchor at the back end who is enjoying the finest season of his career.
One that may be over after a weird sequence just past the midway point in the first period. Bishop was outside the crease during a Pittsburgh power play when he turned around to scramble back into position. His left leg appeared to wrench awkwardly underneath him and he tumbled to the ice writhing in pain before being taken off on a stretcher.
Enter Vasilevskiy, still more than two months away from his 22nd birthday. He hardly appeared overcome by the stage. He had plenty of help in front of him as the Lightning did a solid job of keeping Pittsburgh’s dynamic attack under wraps.
The meeting between two of the quickest teams in the league was supposed to play in stark contrast to Pittsburgh’s physical six-game series with Washington. The expected track meet largely didn’t development, and the scoring chances created off the rush were one-sided in favour of the Lightning.
Tampa Bay struck 18:46 into the first when Killorn slipped behind struggling Pittsburgh defenceman Olli Maatta and fit a shot between Murray’s legs. Palat doubled the lead 2:33 into the second when Valtteri Filppula’s slap shot smacked off Murray’s pads and — with no Penguins around — Palat reached out and slammed home the rebound. Drouin finished off a 3-on-2 by burying a feed from Palat into the open net 18:25 into the second period to give the Lightning complete command.
Facing just their second three-goal deficit of the playoffs, Pittsburgh drew within two on Hornqvist’s power-play goal with just 55 seconds left in the second, a shot from the right circle set up by a pretty between-the-legs flick by Sidney Crosby.
While the score seemed to give the Penguins a decided lift — they carried the play over much of the final 20 minutes — the Lightning and Vasilevskiy held on to grab the early momentum in a series that looks far more contentious going forward than it appeared going in.
Pittsburgh insisted it was a far different team than the one that lost all three regular season meetings to the Lightning, pointing to the club’s strong finish and heady play while dispatching the Rangers and the Capitals as proof the Penguins were much improved over than the group Tampa Bay last saw on Feb. 20.
Maybe, but the Lightning tested that mettle early when Callahan crunched Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang in the corner less than three minutes in, sending the star defenceman slumping to the ice. Letang was motionless for a moment before eventually skating to the locker room. Callahan received a major penalty for boarding but remained in the game, and Letang made a surprisingly quick return during the lengthy delay as Bishop was stretchered off.
The rancour continued late in the first when Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz collided with Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson along end boards. Kunitz’s right knee connected with Johnson’s right knee as Johnson spun around to avoid the check. Johnson re-entered the game midway through the second period. Pittsburgh defenceman Brian Dumoulin was pushed head-first into the boards by Palat late in the third but made it off the ice without help.
NOTES: Tampa Bay went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 4. … Stralman, who is dealing with a fractured left leg, skated on Friday morning and is nearing a return. … Stamkos skated on Friday morning too and wore a regular jersey instead of a red “no contact” jersey but coach Jon Cooper said there was no change in Stamkos’ status.