Hockey Night In Canada Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011

Penalty killing keys Pens' success

Categories: PIT vs. TAM, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning

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Defenceman Zbynek Michalek, bottom, is one of the leaders of Pittsburgh's ace penalty-killing unit. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images) Defenceman Zbynek Michalek, bottom, is one of the leaders of Pittsburgh's ace penalty-killing unit. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh won Game 4 of its first-round playoff series against Tampa when James Neal scored on a seeing-eye shot from along the right-wing boards early in the second overtime Wednesday.

That's when the game ended, anyway.

But a case could be made that the Penguins won the game - or at least put themselves in position to do so - when they killed a series of Tampa Bay power plays when the outcome was still very much in doubt.

The first of those came in the final minute of the second period, shortly after Martin St. Louis had scored to slice the Penguins' lead to 2-1.

The second came midway through the third, when the Lightning was pressing for the tying goal.

The third happened with about 2 1/2 minutes to go in the first overtime, when a Tampa Bay goal would have ended the game and evened the series.

Now, snuffing a few power plays - even against an opponent as lethal with the extra man as Tampa Bay can be - might not seem like a major feat for a team that led the NHL in penalty-killing efficiency during the regular season, but the Penguins had not played well while down a man in Games 2 and 3.

The Lightning scored two man-advantage goals in each of those games, and was 4-for-11 in the series going into Game 4.

Through four games, Tampa Bay has emphasized putting as many pucks as possible on the net during power plays, with the intent of scoring on deflections and rebounds. It's an approach that had been paying off nicely.

"They've been very good at not being real fancy, and getting a lot pucks to the front of the net area," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "They get the tip-, rebound- and loose-puck goal."

Not in Game 4, however. Mostly because the shots that lead to those opportunities usually weren't making it to the net.

"They were blocking shots," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "Our shots that got through the last [two] games ... this time, they didn't get through. It's a mix of them blocking shots and us not aiming right."

Crosby stays off ice

With two days off between Games 4 and 5, neither team practiced Thursday. That was pretty much expected.

What was a bit of a surprise - although it probably shouldn't have been - was that Pittsburgh centre Sidney Crosby stayed off the ice, as well.

There is no pattern to when he skates, and Crosby's regimen is dictated by concussion specialists, not the coaching staff or trainers. And even though he has looked sharp in recent non-contact drills and game-day skates, Crosby has not gotten clearance to give or take hits.

"If you were under the impression he was moving closer [to playing] ... he has to pass to the next stage of what he can do, and that has not happened yet," Bylsma said. "He continues to keep going, but we need to see him progress further down the road before there's any type of timetable."

Spirit of St. Louis

Tampa Bay is expected to fly to Pittsburgh Friday morning. No word yet on whether St. Louis will do it under his own power. No word of anyone who doubts that he could, either.

That's because St. Louis has accounted for four of the Lightning's nine goals in this series, and has been consistently brilliant.

"He's been pretty hot," Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.

Yeah. So is the surface of the sun.

"I can't find any words for what he's doing out there," Boucher said. "He's doing everything he can.

"He never looks like he's tired, he never looks like he's down. He's just a machine out there."

Going to the net

Both teams have made a point to driving to the net since the start of the series, and there have been goaltender-interference minors assessed in the past two games.

Alex Kovalev and James Neal of the Penguins were each given one, as was Ryan Malone of the Lightning.

And while the merits of some individual calls are open to debate, neither club has been shy about crowding the opposing goalie when the opportunity presents itself.

"This time of year in the playoffs, it's something us goalies come to expect," Fleury said. "They have a lot of guys who were trying to tip the puck, set screens, just get in our way really. I thought the refs talked to some players in front of the net at both ends [during Game 4], so it was fair."

Moving on

A number of Tampa Bay players are experiencing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, and getting them to avoid dwelling on the double-overtime loss in Game 4 - and the precarious situation that put the Lightning in - will be a challenge for the team's leaders as the Lightning tries to overcome Pittsburgh's 3-1 edge in the series.

"We have to move forward," captain Vincent Lecavalier said. "That's part of the playoffs and we talked before the series how it was going to be an emotional roller-coaster.

"You have to make sure you handle it the right way. There's nothing we can do now, just make sure we're ready to go and get a win in their building."