Since they met in the first game of the NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins have developed distinct narratives going into a rematch Tuesday, with the venue shifting to Pittsburgh.
The Lightning raised their banner and celebrated with the Stanley Cup before the game on Oct. 12, then came out flat and lost 6-2 to the Penguins.
Now six games into the season, Tampa Bay’s label could be hit or miss, but more miss than hit.
The two-time defending champions have just five points through six games after falling 5-1 Monday at Buffalo.
One glaring problem: Tampa Bay has yet to score first in a game.
“It’s not going to last forever,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of consistently falling behind.
“We need to have better starts,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos, who is doing his part on offense. He leads the team with four goals and nine points, although he had no points against the Sabres.
Stamkos can’t count on help from offensively gifted Nikita Kucherov, who missed the 2020-21 regular season after hip surgery and now is out indefinitely because of a lower-body injury.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, wishes it was missing only one of its best players. The Penguins’ storyline has been one of an overachieving-while-short-handed lineup. The absence of several All-Star-caliber players has not slowed things much.
For the second game in a row, they are expected to be without five of arguably their top six skaters because of injury or positive COVID-19 tests.
That list includes forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, neither of whom has played yet following offseason surgery. Also out are forwards Bryan Rust and Jeff Carter and defenseman Kris Letang.
Crosby would appear the closest to returning. He took some lower-line rushes and got a bit of time on the second power play unit Monday at practice, leading coach Mike Sullivan to say Crosby is getting “a whole lot closer,” but the team captain probably needs to test his surgically repaired left wrist a little more.
Despite those and a few earlier absences, Pittsburgh has yet to lose in regulation and has grabbed eight of a possible 10 points. That has happened with several players stepping into bigger roles or simply getting to play while others are out.
“This league’s about opportunity, and you’ve just got to pounce on your opportunity when your name is called,” Penguins defenseman Mark Friedman said.
That doesn’t mean the Penguins are overconfident about their rematch with the Lightning.
“They’re a good team,” Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry said. “They’ve got some high-scoring offensive players, and they play a good defensive game. They’re a big team. So I think it’s just (a matter of) getting pucks in deep and doing what we do. Then, just playing good defense turns into offense for us.”
The Penguins have not played since a 7-1 pasting of visiting Toronto on Saturday despite missing the aforementioned star players, so they had the advantage of resting at home Monday night while Tampa Bay played and traveled.
–Field Level Media