Depleted, exhausted Penguins can’t rally past Lightning in loss | TribLIVE.com
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Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) scores past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) during the second period Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014, in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. — Defenseman Kris Letang couldn’t have offered his new coaching staff a bigger compliment.

The depleted and exhausted Penguins nearly roared back from a four-goal deficit against the talented Lightning before succumbing 4-3 on Tuesday at Amalie Arena.

They had every reason to quit. It was one night before a three-day Christmas break, the Penguins were playing without 13 injured or ill players, they had played 24 hours earlier while the Lightning were rested, and they fell behind by four goals against one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.

But they kept fighting.

“We want to prove something right now,” Letang said. “We have new coaches. We want to prove something to them. We’re a new team now. And we want to bring it every night.”

While the Penguins weren’t pleased to lose — “The loss stings for everybody,” coach Mike Johnston said — the comeback clearly left a sense of satisfaction in the Penguins locker room.

One year ago to the day, the Penguins played in Ottawa with a similarly depleted lineup and were pummeled 5-0.

A similar script appeared in the making when the Lightning took a 4-0 lead, thanks largely to Tyler Johnson’s hat trick.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who had started his fourth game in six nights, was yanked following Tampa Bay’s third goal.

Still with nine players who started the season playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on the ice, the Penguins mounted a comeback.

“It says an awful lot about the leadership in this group,” Johnston said. “Guys on the bench were into the game. They were down 4-0 but were talking about getting that first goal or about getting a power-play opportunity. We had them on their heels in the third period. That’s a good building block for us.”

Right wing Patric Hornqvist scored in the second period to make it 4-1.

Then with 10:05 remaining in the third, left wing Chris Kunitz received a pass from center Evgeni Malkin and scored on a breakaway to make it 4-2.

“There’s a ton of character in this room,” said goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who allowed one goal in relief. “It was impressive to watch.”

Letang scored his eighth goal of the season with 1:31 remaining to pull the Penguins within a goal.

“You don’t like to lose, but we definitely had a lot of things going against us,” center Sidney Crosby said. “It would have been easy to get ready for Christmas break early. But everybody stuck with it. We never gave up.”

The Penguins had a couple of opportunities in the final minute but were unable to beat rookie goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy again.

It was a patchwork lineup. The fourth line was comprised of a guy making his NHL debut (Dominik Uher), an AHL journeyman (Andrew Ebbett) and an AHL defenseman playing forward for the first time since age 10 (Taylor Chorney).

The Penguins have used 34 players in an NHL game this season, a number exceeded only by Anaheim’s 35, and have lost 125 man-games to injury.

Johnston said following the game that as many as “five, six or seven” players could be ready to return to the lineup soon.

“I hope,” he said.

Johnston has every reason to be concerned about his team’s inability to stay healthy.

Staying hungry, though, doesn’t appear to be an issue.

“We showed a lot of heart,” Johnston said.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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