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Key players must improve if the Lightning is to upset Penguins

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If the series is tied, then why in the world do the Tampa Bay Lightning seem so far behind?

Technically, the Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins are knotted at three games, with one walk across the tightrope left to determine who goes to the Stanley Cup Final. But considering the team’s lethargic performance in a 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh, it feels worse.

During the series, the Penguins at their best have been better than the Lightning at their best. Pittsburgh is averaging more than 38 shots a game and almost four goals per game.

So who needs to play better?

A short list:

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy: Yes, the Lightning have constantly praised Vasilevskiy. But most hockey teams do, especially when there is no alternative. Vasilevskiy hasn’t held the Penguins to less than three goals in any game. He needs to be better than good tonight. He needs to have his best game of the season.

2. Victor Hedman: After the second round, you could hear whispers that Hedman might be on his way to winning the Conn Smythe Award as the playoff MVP. But Hedman was a minus-four on Tuesday night for the first time all season. Hey, someone has to control Sidney Crosby, right?

3. Tyler Johnson: He’s a little guy, and he gets banged up a lot. Even now, his mouth is mass of scabs. But the Lightning could use Johnson’s energy. Johnson, too, was minus four on Tuesday.

4. Nikita Kucherov: This one isn’t fair. He scored twice in the Bolts’ 4-3 win in Game Four. But the Bolts need a dose of what Kucherov can bring now more than ever. When he scores, the Lightning is usually ok.

5. J.T. Brown: A wild-card here. Brown (and Cedric Paquette) can be exactly the sort of irritants that the Bolts need to offset Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

6. (tie) Everyone else: In a big game, no one is ever sure just where a big goal will come from. Ondrej Palat? Jonathan Drouin? Jason Garrison? Regardless, it would help if the Bolts could score first. It would help if they can avoid the penalty kill early so they can get their momentum going.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit

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