Kamis, 21 April 2011

Elephant in room too big for St. Louis

Thursday, April 21, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Penguins left winger James Neal (18) celebrates with teammate defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning during double-overtime in Game 4 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff series on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. The Penguins won the game 3-2. (AP)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Late in the second period of Game 4, Martin St. Louis was still trying to put this somehow recalcitrant Tampa Bay Lightning team on his back, and given the proportionate realities, it was like trying to hoist a sleeping elephant onto a coffee table.

Having been largely unresponsive to its own spectacle for most of four hours, the Lightning finally took its eyes off it just long enough to see the answer to an unrelated question: When is James Neal ever going to put a puck in the net?

At 3:38 of the second overtime in Game 4 was that answer, and it meant that the Penguins will have a chance to win this first-round hairpull Saturday at Consol Energy Center.

But don't misunderstand; how the Penguins proceed from here, it hasn't been about unlikely goals a much as preventing the likely ones.

"One thing is that you have to commend our players [for their defense]," head coach Dan Bylsma said after a 3-2 victory. "When you have that kind of talent on the ice, St. Louis, and [Vincent] Lecavalier, and [Steven] Stamkos and [Simon] Gagne, you're facing a tough situation. We just have to keep making the right decisions that allow us to minimize their opportunities. St. Louis is dangerous every time he steps on the ice. He's always in front of our net."

St Louis, listed liberally at 5 feet 8 and 175 pounds in a full lather, beat Ben Lovejoy down the right wing and picked up a pretty flip from Lecavalier, waited just long enough for Lovejoy to undercut him, and wristed the first Tampa Bay goal of the game to the far side of Marc-Andre Fleury.

It was St. Louis' third goal in two games, but when it hit the net at 17:14 of what had been scheduled to be the middle period, it meant that Tampa Bay's indefatigable right winger was still the only Lightning to score a goal since this series returned to Florida four days ago. He has tried the elephant-on-the-coffee-table trick before though; in 49 career playoff games, he has scored 53 points.

But with barely three minutes left in regulation, somebody gave St. Louis some help. Sean Bergenheim poked St. Louis' rebound under Fleury, and for the second game in a row, the Penguins had regurgitated a two-goal lead onto the ice at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"There's a lot of onus on this game," forward Mike Rupp had warned after Wednesday's morning skate. "Anytime you have a chance to go up 3-1 in a series, you don't want to miss it."

Where everyone else in Tampa Bay's fuel-injected offense has been is surely and properly a function of the Penguins defense, but it's at least equal parts mystery, most notably in the case of Stamkos.

"It's a series, and it's all about the team," said Lecavalier in an embittered Lightning dressing room late Wednesday night. "It's not about Steven because he worked very hard tonight. He was fighting. He's got the determination, had it since the day I met him. He's made some good plays. They just didn't end up in goals."

The most gifted natural goal scorer on either team, at least so long as Sidney Crosby remains in street clothes, Stamkos is lost in a five-goals-in-31-games funk that analysts have been trying to link to some unreported injury, which is hardly an unfounded notion in this sport. Two other theories had drawn less attention, but deserve mention, one being that on the night of Jan. 5, in an 8-1 Penguins spanking, Stamkos inexplicably and embarrassingly fell down on a penalty shot.

At that moment, the exact midpoint of the season, he had 31 goals. He has 14 since. Has he not recovered mentally from that?

The other is brutally simple -- Brooks Orpik buried Stamkos' scoring touch somewhere in the left wing corner in the first 90 seconds of this series.

So without Stamkos to join him on the scoresheet, without much from Lecavalier and with almost nothing from Ryan Malone, St. Louis keeps trying to resuscitate a series crammed end-to-end with unlikely heroes.

Tyler Kennedy got his second goal of the series through an Eric Tangradi screen, on a power play of all things, to put the Penguins up, 1-0, then Arron Asham got his third goal of these quarterfinals when he sent a Lovejoy rebound past Dwayne Roloson early in the second.

So do we have this right? Asham and Kennedy are deadly; Stamkos and Lecavalier can't put one in for Tampa Bay?

"We have go get pucks around the net," Lecavalier said. "There are rebounds, and I'm not just saying that about Fluery, I mean with any goalie there are going to be rebounds. We've got to get some in."

That's now the essence of the Lightning's plight: Get some in or get out.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11111/1140938-150-0.stm#ixzz1K9sfLiEQ

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