PITTSBURGH - With Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin injured, the Tampa Bay Lightning had to figure that if they could contain Pittsburgh's secondary scoring, they could win the teams' first-round playoff series.
And indeed, the Lightning have had some success.
Alex Kovalev? One goal in four games. James Neal? One goal. Chris Kunitz? Only an empty-netter. Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis? Nothing.
What the Lightning couldn't have planned for is that Pittsburgh's fourth line would do so much damage. Led by Arron Asham's three goals, the unheralded line of Asham, Craig Adams and Mike Rupp has been the Penguins' secret offensive weapon as they have built a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 at noon today in Pittsburgh.
"Every year that's the story," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "Teams get guys that you never expect. They usually are the guys that grind it out. Sometimes it's a fourth-line guy or third-line guy... It's usually guys that battle so hard that they out-battle the opponent. Asham has been doing that, and when you watch the clips it isn't luck. He deserves what he's getting."
After scoring only five goals in the regular season, Asham has a goal in each of Pittsburgh's three victories in the series as the Penguins are one victory away from advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth consecutive season.
On the ice
Today: Game 5, Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins, noon
Best-of-7 series: Penguins lead, 3-1
The old story about the Penguins used to be that they were a top-heavy team, too reliant on their stars for offense. This series, Pittsburgh has turned that upside down. The so-called fourth line's four goals are more than any other unit; its six points also lead the team.
"Because of what the fourth line has been doing on the ice, they've earned... more minutes and earned that opportunity," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Not only have they earned the opportunity, but I've put them out in key situations after goals. In Game 1 they scored the second goal right away. Those are situations where the team needs momentum and a big shift. They are put out there to provide that. They've done that and have been a factor for us."
Asham was a member of the Philadelphia Flyers last season when they became only the third team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, beating the Boston Bruins in the second round.
Lightning winger Simon Gagne scored the Game 7 winner last season for the Flyers in that Boston series.
A team coming back from down 3-1 in a series to win is considerably less rare, although the Lightning have never done it.
"Once you go through something and at the end you win, you understand that it's possible to do," Gagne said. "I'm one example. That's what I said to the guys today - I know it's possible to do."
Pittsburgh is 5-1 in series under Bylsma, but the Penguins have lost all four games with him in which they've been at home with a chance to close out a series. That led Bylsma to joke that his son says he can't win a big game at home.
Visiting teams are 19-14 this postseason, and the road team has won the past three games of this series.
"You want your fans there and you want to be able to have that last change at home, but it doesn't guarantee you success in a playoff game," Bylsma said. "You don't get to move on until you win four. Neither of us has gotten to that number yet."
No team has won more series than Pittsburgh over the past three seasons - a time span in which the Lightning failed to even qualify for the playoffs.
The Penguins say that experience helps in the pressure-cooker that is an elimination game.
"In your first playoffs, you underestimate it and maybe you're a little naive and kind of say, 'Oh, experience doesn't have that much to do with it,'" Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "But it's big this time of year... I think we learned that the hard way three years ago against Detroit."
Notes: Penguins C Sidney Crosby did not practice and went through an off-ice workout as part of his recovery from a concussion. After practice, he walked through the locker room, smiling and giving encouraging taps to teammates. He did not speak with reporters. ... Lightning C Steven Stamkos was not on the ice when practice began but did go through the workout. Also, D Eric Brewer did not practice. Boucher brushed both off as just giving guys extra rest. ... Boucher said he would dress seven defensemen on Saturday. ... Pittsburgh LW Chris Kunitz and Tampa Bay RW Steve Downie each will return to his team's lineup after sitting out Game 4 due to suspension.