PITTSBURGH – Tyler Johnson turned toward the net, wary of taking another shot to his already battered face.
The puck off Jason Garrison’s stick found him anyway, and this time he didn’t even feel it. He was too busy celebrating lifting the Tampa Bay Lightning to within one win away from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Garrison’s wrister smacked off Johnson’s back and into the Pittsburgh Penguins net 53 seconds into overtime on Sunday night, giving the Lightning a 4-3 victory and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. A year after falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup finals, Tampa Bay can head back to the championship round with a win in Game 6 at home on Tuesday.
“I was just battling in front,” said Johnson, a Spokane native. “I saw Garry starting to shoot it, thought he was going for my head again, so I turned around.”
Just in time for his seventh – and most important – goal of the playoffs. The Lightning are 12-1 in the last 13 postseason games in which Johnson has scored, his fortunate bounce Sunday coming two days after he received stitches and lost some teeth after a puck smashed into his face during warmups before Game 4. He didn’t miss a shift that night. He didn’t miss the net in overtime 48 hours later, even if he wasn’t technically aiming for it.
“He’s a winner, that’s what winners do,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said of Johnson. “They don’t back down.”
Even on the road. Even down a pair of goals. Even trailing by one heading into the third period against a team that began the night 46-0 on the season when leading after two. Yet Tampa Bay survived by consistently and expertly counterpunching every time the Penguins provided an opportunity.
Nikita Kucherov scored twice to boost his postseason total to an NHL-best 11 – including a wraparound that beat Marc-Andre Fleury and tied it at 3 with just 3:16 left in regulation. Alex Killorn picked up his fifth of the playoffs as the Lightning handed the Penguins consecutive losses for the first time since January. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots to outplay Fleury, who returned to the lineup for the first time in more than seven weeks.
Fleury finished with 21 saves, but couldn’t protect leads of 2-0 and 3-2.
“It wasn’t the best I have felt in a game,” Fleury said. “Still, I have been practicing a lot, so I should have been better.”
Brian Dumoulin, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist scored for the Penguins, who appeared to be in firm control at certain points only to find themselves on the brink of elimination.
“This is the first time we’ve been in this position,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I know our guys will respond the right way. They have for four months, five months now.”
If the Penguins want to play at least one more game in Pittsburgh this season, they don’t really have a choice. While the Penguins have peppered Vasilevskiy for the better part of five games, the Lightning keep finding ways to create quality chances around the Pittsburgh net, though Garrison’s flick toward Johnson might not exactly qualify.
“No shot’s a bad shot in overtime,” Garrison said with a laugh.
Back in his customary starting spot for the first time in 52 days after dealing with a concussion that coincided with the rise of rookie Matt Murray, Fleury appeared to be plenty fresh. He sprinted in full gear onto the Consol Energy Center ice for his 100th career playoff appearance and looked fine while making a split save on Johnson in the second period that few of his brethren can pull off. He was helped by teammates more than willing to get on their bellies. The Penguins blocked 22 shots before they even made it to the goal crease and continued their series-long dominance in creating pressure at the other end.
Dumoulin’s first goal in 17 months in the final second of the first period put Pittsburgh in front. Hornqvist’s tap-in off Carl Hagelin’s feed made it 2-0 just 90 seconds into the second.
The Lightning hardly panicked.
Killorn drew Tampa Bay within a goal 13:15 into the second on a wrist shot from the left circle that went in and out of the goal so quickly play continued for a few seconds before referees pointed to the red goal light. Kucherov tied it 70 seconds later on an easy one-timer. Kunitz’s rebound with 1:30 left in the second gave the Penguins another late-period boost.
For the first time all year, it didn’t hold up. Ryan Callahan saw a shot ring off the far post and along the goal line – but not across it – with 3:50 remaining in what appeared to be Tampa Bay’s last best chance. Barely 30 seconds later, Kucherov was flying behind the Pittsburgh net to tie it up and set the stage for Johnson, who is putting off dental surgery until after the season – calling it an easy decision to make.
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