Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel celebrates his goal during the third period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Wednesday, May 18, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are learning the painful lesson that playing the Pittsburgh Penguins is like being in a race in which the Penguins are running downhill on the smoothest of surfaces and the Lightning are running up a rocky hill in muddy boots.
This reality was brought home in stunning fashion Wednesday at Amalie Arena in Tampa, where the Lightning had been a tidy 5-1 this spring but were dominated by the Penguins by a 4-2 count that flattered the home side.
The win gives the Penguins a 2-1 series lead, and more sobering for the Lightning, it marks the second straight game in which they have been the second-best team on the ice by a wide margin.
In the past two games, the Lightning have allowed 89 shots against goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was, for the second straight game, the best Lightning player on the ice in relief of the injured Ben Bishop.
That, head coach Jon Cooper said, is unacceptable.
"It's extremely disappointing to give up 48 shots in your home building in a playoff game," Cooper said. "The way things have gone these two games, it doesn't matter who's in net. You know we could have had Bish and Vasi both playing at the same time, and they might have squeaked a couple in."
It's not as if we haven't seen this kind of thing before.
The New York Rangers and then the Washington Capitals found themselves running the same patently unfair race against the Penguins. In all three series, the Penguins split the first two games. In the first two rounds, they slowly but surely separated themselves from the Rangers and Capitals, en route to series victories of 4-1 and 4-2, respectively.
The Penguins have now separated themselves from the Lightning, and the question is whether last year's Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals can somehow reel Pittsburgh back in before it's too late.
"You have to give them credit," said Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, who scored the first goal for Tampa just 14 seconds after Phil Kessel had given the Penguins a 2-0 lead early in the third period. "They played outstanding. They're a really good team, and when they were going, have that confidence, it's tough to stop in the offensive zone there."
Johnson described the Lightning's defensive effort as trying to put a round peg in a square hole. Defenseman Anton Stralman added that he thought his team made life too easy for the Penguins in the second part of the game, after a solid start in which the first period ended scoreless.
"Overall, it's just a lack of quality right now," Stralman said. "They played better. It's just as simple as that. A lot of it, I think, is self-inflicted, too. They're a really good team, but we're just kind of feeding them a lot right now. We need to clean up, and it's not going to cut it."
Game 3 followed a pattern the Penguins have followed often this spring. Regardless of the score, they generally get stronger as the game goes along. They outshot the Lightning 21-6 in the second period and basically owned the puck.
The Penguins have now outshot opponents 163-121 in the second period this spring. Had the Lightning finished the period without giving up a goal, who knows how this plays out?
But they didn't. Jonathan Drouin committed a rookie mistake by coughing up the puck in the Pittsburgh zone in the waning seconds. Victor Hedman could not contain Kessel as he blazed down the right side and fired off a shot. Carl Hagelin scored on the rebound to give the Pens a 1-0 lead with 10 seconds left in the second.
The Lightning chased the rest of the game, and that was that.
The series is only 2-1. But a longtime NHL player and current team executive said he had expected both teams to elevate their games in Game 3, and in the end, only one did.
"I'm not sure if the Lightning have an answer," the executive said.
They have a day to come up with one before Game 4 at 8 p.m. ET Friday in Tampa.
One of the keys, of course, is the Lightning need to find more guys who can put pucks past Penguins goalie Matt Murray. Johnson scored, and so did Ondrej Palat, but that was it.
Fifteen different Penguins have scored this spring. In Game 3, it was a dominant Kessel line that did the bulk of the damage. Last game, it was Sidney Crosby and Matt Cullen, and so on, and so on.
In the seconds before Kessel made it 2-0 early in the third, Brian Boyle and J.T. Brown had successive golden scoring chances for the Lightning but couldn't get the puck to go at a crucial point. In a heartbeat, it was 2-0, and the series is slipping away.
"I think everyone's frustrated because you definitely don't want to be losing the series," Johnson said. "But we have so much confidence in the guys that are sitting next to us that we know we can bounce back."
Certainly one of the hallmarks of the Lightning is that they have been through a lot in the past three playoff years. None of this is new. This is not a team that gets flustered.
"I mean, the message would have been a lot different if this is a best-of-three," Cooper said, half-joking.
But the truth of the matter is that this spring, the Lightning have not played a team like the Penguins, and they are realizing what the Rangers and Capitals had to learn the hard way: Running uphill makes winning very, very difficult.