By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby picked an opportune time to snap out of a playoff slump.
Crosby scored 40 seconds into overtime, lifting the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Finals series Monday at Consol Energy Center.
“It feels good to get rewarded,” Crosby said. “I feel we deserved it tonight.”
The goal was Crosby’s fourth of the playoffs and first in eight games, breaking a lengthy drought.
More importantly, it evened the best-of-seven series at a game apiece as Pittsburgh avoided a 2-0 hole as the scene shifts to Tampa Bay on Wednesday (8 p.m.) for Game 3.
“I think it’s a big boost for Sid,” Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think it’s a big boost for our team. Obviously, this is an important win for us to even the series.”
Phil Kessel scored his sixth and Matt Cullen his fourth of the playoffs for Pittsburgh, which went to overtime for the fourth time in eight games. Matt Murray was shaky early, allowing two goals on eight shots, but he rebounded to stop the final 13 for his eighth win in 11 playoff games.
“I was pretty happy with how I was able to shut it down,” Murray said.
Crosby ended this one with his first career overtime game-winner in the playoffs. The goal also moved Crosby into third on the franchise’s all-time playoff goals list with 47.
Bryan Rust, streaking into the zone, dropped the puck to Crosby, who whipped a high wrist shot behind the still-standing Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to the blocker side. It was the fastest overtime goal in team history.
“I didn’t think (Rust) saw me, so I tried to let him know I was there,” Crosby said. “He made a perfect pass and put it in an area I could get a quick shot away.”
Anton Stralman scored a goal in his first game back since sustaining a fractured left fibula on March 25, while Jonathan Drouin added his third of the playoffs for the Lightning, who needed overtime for the third time in five games.
Vasilevskiy stopped 38 shots for Tampa Bay, filling in for starter Ben Bishop, who remains day-to-day with a lower leg injury.
Crosby registered three goals and five assists during the Penguins’ five-game series win against the New York Rangers, but turned quiet in the second round against the Washington Capitals. He had chances to score and contributed defensively, but only had three assists in the last seven games as Pittsburgh got by the Capitals, but were in danger of falling behind 2-0 against the Lightning.
“It feels good, but yeah, it definitely tests your patience sometimes,” Crosby said.
Crosby nearly scored in the second period, teaming with Evgeni Malkin on a two-on-one, but Vasilevskiy dove across the crease for a glove save. The two stars combined for one goal and five points in six games before Crosby’s game-winner.
“I got pretty good wood on it, I thought it was a pretty decent shot,” Crosby said. “The goalie had to respect (Malkin) on his side and I thought I had a lot of net. When it came off my stick, I thought I had a pretty good chance of scoring, for sure.”
Malkin remains pointless in Pittsburgh’s last six and hasn’t scored since Game 1 of the Washington series, but he feels his time is coming.
“Every playoffs, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose when you don’t score there’s always pressure.” Malkin said. “That’s life. It doesn’t matter because tonight we won. I’m happy with how I played. I think the goals are coming.”
Tampa Bay played without several regulars on Monday, a trend that has become the norm during the Lightning playoff run.
That included Bishop, the Vezina Trophy finalist, who left Friday’s opening game of the series on a stretcher after awkwardly twisting his left leg while trying to scramble to position in his crease. Tests came back negative for Bishop, whose leg is structurally intact, and while he skated between games, he was not well enough to play.
Ryan Callahan, who received a five-minute major for boarding Pens’ defenseman Kris Letang in Game 1, was out with an illness. Steven Stamkos practiced without a non-contact jersey the previous two days and hopes to play in the series, but remains sidelined since undergoing surgery April 4 to remove a blood clot from his right collarbone.
Still, the Lightning nearly left Pittsburgh with a 2-0 series lead.
Murray stopped Alex Killorn on a partial breakaway at the end of the second period to keep the game tied heading into the third. Killorn was denied again midway through the third, ringing a shot off the crossbar during a two-on-one with Stralman, while Murray made a stop in close on Ondrej Palat later in the period.
“I wasn’t busy for the rest of the game, but made a couple big saves when I needed to and we got the win,” Murray said.
Pittsburgh generated 35 shots in the first game of the series, but many were low-scoring opportunities that came from outside the perimeter as Tampa Bay controlled the play. It was a different story to start Game 2 as Pittsburgh came away with 13 of the first 18 shots.
Cullen struck less than five minutes into the game giving Pittsburgh its first lead of the series. Kessel tallied again soon after as the Penguins freely swarmed the Tampa Bay zone with second and third-chance opportunities they didn’t have in the close-quarters opening game of the series.
Tampa Bay weathered the storm and scored the next two goals.
Jonathan Marchessault skated into the zone and hit a trailing Stralman, who put a shot over Murray’s glove to cut Pittsburgh’s lead in half.
Drouin scored in the final minute of the period with a sharp wrist shot that squeezed underneath Murray’s arm on the blocker side.
Murray was perfect the rest of the way, allowing Crosby to shine in overtime.
“I’m glad Sid got the overtime winner,” Sullivan said. “I think he got rewarded for a hard effort tonight.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh hasn’t lost back-to-back games since Jan. 12-15 against Carolina and Tampa Bay…Pittsburgh is 4-0 after a loss during the playoffs…The Penguins scored three overtime goals at home for the first time in playoff history…Penguins’ D Olli Maatta was scratched for D Justin Schultz…Kessel continued his point-per-game career playoff performance and tied a career high with six goals during a playoff season.