Regulation losses have been rare for the Tampa Bay Lightning as of late, and one on Sunday was hardly enough to spoil what has been an overall successful stretch for the team spanning nearly the last month.
Steve Downie scored twice and Mathieu Garon stopped 37 shots for Tampa Bay, which dropped just its second contest in regulation since Jan. 15 in a 4-2 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Both teams were coming off the first half of back-to-back sets on Saturday night, while Tampa Bay concluded a three-game road trip with three out of a possible six points, keeping them alive in the race for a playoff spot.
Tampa Bay, 12th in the East with 54 points, now trails the Toronto Maple Leafs by just eight points for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
Pittsburgh got a pair of goals from Evgeni Malkin, while Chris Kuntiz and Kris Letang each had a goal and two assists.
James Neal also added three assists on the night for the Penguins, winners in three of their past five. Goaltender Brent Johnson made 21 saves.
The victory helped Pittsburgh improve to 8-2-1 in their last 11 games and also match a season-high by winning their sixth in a row at home.
Kunitz erased a two-goal deficit just 56 seconds into the middle period when he skated past both Victor Hedman and Brett Clark before entering into the zone and finishing off a breakaway by slipping one past Garon with his 16th of the season to tie the game at 2-2.
The goal was the first in a three-goal second period for Pittsburgh that gave them a 4-2 lead heading into the final 20 minutes, which eventually would stand up as the final score at the end of regulation.
Pittsburgh’s fast start to the second period resembled what was an equally quick beginning to the game by the Lightning which helped them jump out to an early lead and gain some momentum shortly following the opening puck drop.
A pair of first-period goals by Downie in a span of 11 seconds put the Lightning up 2-0 midway through the opening frame.
First, Downie sent a slap shot from the left circle that snuck under the arm of Johnson to give Tampa Bay a one-goal advantage. He then tapped home a feed through the crease from Teddy Purcell to double the lead and set a Lightning franchise record for the fastest two goals by a single player.
Purcell set up both Tampa Bay goals on the night to extend his own personal season-high point streak to four games. The Bolts forward has five points in that span, all assists.
Malkin then cut the deficit in half with a one-timer while on the power play just before the opening frame ended to get Pittsburgh on the board with 3:45 left to go in the period.
“We were pretty happy with the way we started, especially in being in someone else’s barn,” Lightning assistant coach Martin Raymond said. “That’s always a good thing.”
Just 3:32 after Kunitz drew Pittsburgh even, Letang gave the Penguins their first lead of the game as he beat Garon over the glove, and Malkin’s second of the night capped the scoring at 4-2 as he converted a feed from Kunitz into an empty cage after Pavel Kubina turned the puck over in his own zone.
Malkin, coming off a five-point night just 24 hours earlier, now has amassed 10 points in his past five games. He barely missed a hat trick, missing by inches of putting the puck into an empty net in the final second.
“They used their skill and moved the puck around at will in that period,” Lightning assistant coach Dan Lacroix said. “We know we can do better.”