Penguins, Lightning off to chippy start in East finals
So much for niceties and the promise of fluid, free-flowing hockey. In the span of three testy periods Friday night, the Eastern Conference finals flipped from benign to occasionally belligerent.
Pittsburgh defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin needed to be helped off the ice after getting smashed into the boards headfirst following illegal hits from behind by a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson skated off in obvious pain following a knee-on-knee collision with Penguins forward Chris Kunitz that may have been avoidable.
Following two emotionally charged series wins over the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, the prospect of facing the less familiar Lightning seemed to offer an opportunity for a respite from the NHL’s annual tap dance with what is — and what isn’t — against the rules. Tampa Bay’s chippy 3-1 victory in Game 1 instead proved to be more of the same.
“This isn’t as much as a rivalry as maybe the Rangers and the Capitals, it certainly should be [now], after some of the hits,” Pittsburgh forward Patric Hornqvist said.
Neither side wanted to do much politicking in the aftermath.
When asked about the way Kunitz slammed into Johnson in the final moments of the opening period, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper called it a “trap question.”
Pressed on if Callahan deserved supplemental discipline outside of the five-minute major he received for nudging a vulnerable Letang into harm’s way, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan offered only “the NHL’s going to do their job, we’re going to do ours. We’re just going to play hockey.”
The league chose not to pursue any further action against Callahan. The veteran cast part of the blame for the severity of the hit on the way Letang was hunched over in pursuit of the puck as Callahan closed in.
“He turns at the last second. I’m committed, I think, when he turns his head, and his body is pretty low,” Callahan said. “I’m trying to pin him, and in that split second, I can’t really make a decision,” Callahan said. “Unfortunately, I think the position he was in made it worse than it was.”
Callahan stressed “that’s not the way I play” while pointing out he’s never been fined or suspended. Yet Cooper allowed while his team’s reputation for being among the league’s elite skaters is well deserved, the Lightning have found themselves in the penalty box more than any other club during the postseason.
Tampa Bay is averaging more than 16 minutes in penalties through 11 games. The Penguins are averaging less than 10 minutes in the box.
“It’s not something we’re proud of,” Cooper said. “We’ve had to grind some things outs.”
At least the Lightning might not have to grind it out — at least in the long term — without top goaltender Ben Bishop. The Vezina Trophy finalist injured his left leg just over 12 minutes into Game 1 while scrambling to get back in position in front of the net.
Bishop left the ice on a stretcher but tests revealed no structural damage.
Cooper is upbeat about Bishop’s prognosis even though he cautioned Bishop’s status for Monday night’s Game 2 — and anything after that really — remains uncertain.
Backup Alexei Vasilevskiy made 25 stops in Bishop’s absence in his first significant playing time since the end of the regular season. The 21-year-old received plenty of help in front of him. The Lightning blocked 15 shots and kept Pittsburgh’s star-laden attack under wraps while building a three-goal lead.
The Penguins pressed the issue in the third, but by then Tampa Bay was in command. Yet the Lightning held firm, though their fifth straight playoff win didn’t end quietly.
Dumoulin left late in the third after Ondrej Palat pushed twice as Dumoulin went back to retrieve the puck. The second bump sent Dumolin awkwardly into the end boards.
“It happened,” said Palat, who was called for a boarding minor. “Bad play.”
One both teams insist they’ll try to avoid, along with the temptation to retaliate.
“There’s not much you can do as far as fighting them or something like that,” Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. “You can, [but] you have got to be careful not to get an instigator [penalty]. I think you’ve really just got to double down, mentally up your battle level a little bit.”