PITTSBURGH (AP) — After a baffling loss to a last-place team and with a visit from the NHL’s best club looming, the Pittsburgh Penguins called a players-only meeting on Tuesday in an effort to clear the air.
“We needed an answer,” defenseman Kris Letang said.
For a night, they found one.
Playing with an edge they lacked two nights earlier against struggling New Jersey, the Penguins turned away the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 on Wednesday to send a message that when they are fully engaged, they remain as dangerous as ever.
“We all know that Tampa Bay right now is at the top of the league,” Letang said. “They’re a really good measuring stick for any team. Tonight was important, especially (after) the two points that slipped the night before. It was a good effort, and I think it brought the best out of us.”
Matt Murray finished with 33 saves to keep the NHL’s highest scoring team in check, and Letang tied Hall of Famer Paul Coffey’s franchise record for career goals by a defenseman. Letang’s shot from the right circle 6:02 into the second period beat Andrei Vasilevskiy to give him 12 goals on the season and 108 since his NHL debut in 2007.
Letang, a five-time All-Star, called the milestone “surreal.” He’s still a long way off from Coffey’s 396 career goals over 21 NHL seasons.
“Growing up watching him, I never thought I would have my name next to his,” Letang said.
Riley Sheahan, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby scored during a first-period outburst by Pittsburgh. Evgeni Malkin picked up two assists to become the fifth Russian-born player in league history to reach 600 career assists then drew a 5-minute fighting major in the third period after tussling with Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos.
“That’s (his) best game in a while,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Malkin. “He was on the puck. You notice him. He was a presence every shift.”
Murray withstood an early barrage by Tampa Bay to hand the Lighting just their fourth regulation loss in their last 25 games.
Vasilevskiy allowed three goals on five shots before settling down to finish with 18 saves, but Tampa Bay couldn’t recover in its return from a 10-day break. J.T. Miller and Stamkos scored late in the third period to keep the Lighting from being shut out for the first time this season, but it wasn’t nearly enough to prevent Tampa Bay from falling to 2-12-2 in its last 14 regular-season visits to Pittsburgh.
“We just kind of got behind the eight-ball and they capitalized on it their couple chances they got,” Stamkos said. “It was just an uphill battle from there. So I thought we stuck with it, but just too sloppy to start the game.”
Sullivan expressed frustration at his team’s scattershot play against the Devils, when turnovers and disinterested play in front of Murray dropped Pittsburgh to 1-7-1 against last-place teams. Two days later against an opponent with the inside track to claim the Presidents’ Trophy, the effort and the results were far different.
Sheahan gave the Penguins the lead 3:25 into the game when he pounced on a rebound of Garrett Wilson’s wraparound attempt and flipped it past Vasilevskiy. Kessel’s 21st goal of the season less than five minutes later came in much the same fashion. Kessel and Bryan Rust broke in 2-on-1 and Rust attempted to skate across the crease and beat Vasilevskiy with a backhand only to lose control of the puck. No matter. Kessel, standing at the left post, tapped it in to make it 2-0.
Pittsburgh needed just 16 seconds to push the advantage to 3-0. Jake Guentzel forced a turnover behind the Tampa Bay net. Dominik Simon jumped on the loose puck and fed Crosby all alone in front.
The Lightning opted to stick with Vasilevskiy and turned up the pressure on the other end of the ice. Pittsburgh went more than 17 minutes without a shot on net at one point, but Tampa Bay couldn’t figure out a way to beat Murray. By the time the Lightning finally broke through on Miller’s goal with 4:05 remaining in the third, the outcome was already decided.
“I just thought we lost our legs a little bit in the second, gained it back in the third, clawed back a little bit,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “But still you’re down four, it’s tough.”
NOTES: Kendall Coyne Schofield, a forward on the Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. women’s hockey team who finished seventh in the fastest skate competition at the All-Star Game last weekend, worked the game as an analyst for NBC Sports Network. … Pittsburgh F Derick Brassard missed the game with an upper-body injury. … Tampa Bay’s top-ranked power play went 1 for 2 with the man advantage. Pittsburgh’s went 0 for 3. … Malkin is the fourth Penguin to reach 600 assists, joining Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Crosby. … Pittsburgh forward Teddy Blueger played 6:22 in his NHL debut.
Lightning: Visit the New York Islanders on Friday.
Penguins: Finish three-game homestand on Friday against Ottawa.