TAMPA, Fla. – James Neal fondly recalls those days as a youngster, watching late-night hockey games back home in Whitby, Ont. He'd dream about the opportunity of having the puck on his stick with the game on the line.
"I remember watching the games that went deep into the night and wishing I could be out there when I'm older and get that shot and win that one for your team," the 23-year-old said.
It's pretty safe to assume the first playoff goal of Neal's NHL career fits that bill. Neal scored from a bad angle 3:38 into the second overtime and gave his team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a 3-2 victory against Tampa Bay on Wednesday night and a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Neal's blast from the right boards near the hash marks clipped Dwayne Roloson's catching glove before entering the net on the short side.
"As long as you keep shooting, one is going to find its way into the back of the net," Neal said. "I got a shot off the draw and just wanted to shoot. I didn't have the angle, but it managed to find its way in. I was lucky to get one, but the guys battled all night."
The goal was Neal's second as a Penguin, his first since March 8 -- and negated a comeback by the Lightning, who got the game into OT after trailing 2-0.
"It's up there (as the biggest goal of my career), given the situation and because it also happens to be my first NHL playoff goal," Neal said. "It was a big one and it's definitely a fun way to get one. I'm just trying to get it on net and get it off hard and quick. It ticked off the glove and came out pretty quick too."
It was a tough ending for Roloson, who stopped 50 shots, including 11 in the first overtime, in defeat. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turned away 29 shots.
"It just knuckled and went in off the glove and the bar," Roloson said of Neal’s winner. "It was a traditional playoff goal. It was ugly and that's what happens when you put pucks on net."
For the hard-working Neal, the goal was long overdue.
"I think I've been getting opportunities since the day I got here," Neal said. "I don't think it's been the opportunity part … it's just been bearing down on those opportunities and forcing the puck in the net. I knew it wasn't going to come easy, and it's obviously tough when you're not scoring. It's been a long wait but it was worth it."
The Penguins improved to 22-16 in Stanley Cup OT games while the Lightning fell to in 7-6. Pittsburgh has a chance to close out the Lightning when they host Game 5 on Saturday at noon ET.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher has no doubt his team can come back.
"I'm one of those guys who believes it's possible until there is absolutely no time left," he said. "I've seen it before, done it before, and if it's one game at a time, then this one we lose, next one we win, and we're back in our rink again. The series are never about momentum. They're about desperation."
Sean Bergenheim's first goal of the playoffs off a scramble in the slot with 3:17 left in regulation pulled Tampa Bay into a 2-2 tie. Defenseman Pavel Kubina made the play happen when his shot from the right point triggered a flurry of activity in the crease. Martin St. Louis took a few pokes at the puck before Bergenheim knocked home his first career playoff goal.
The Penguins penalty-killers did a superb job in support of Fleury, not only denying the Lightning on four power-play chances but limiting them to only three shots, including a single shot during an advantage late in the first OT. Tampa Bay had scored four power-play goals in the first three games.
Penguins center Jordan Staal was at the center of those penalty kills. Staal, who logged 28:33 of ice time, blocked two shots, doled out three hits and won 54 percent of his face-offs, was "spectacular" in the eyes of coach Dan Bylsma.
"We asked him to do a lot for our team and he's a huge guy down the middle for us at both ends of the rink," Bylsma said. "To log those types of minutes and play those situations, he's a big backbone and he was a horse again on the penalty-kill and in overtime, blocking shots, winning battles and keeping that puck in the zone to give Neal a chance on the game-winner."
With his team trailing 2-0 and being outplayed, St. Louis got the Lightning and the sellout crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum back into the game at 17:14 of the second period when he scored after a splendid individual effort. St. Louis collected Vincent Lecavalier's a no-look bank pass off the side boards in the neutral zone, took the puck in stride at the Penguins blue line near the players' bench and curled into the right circle before muscling off defenseman Ben Lovejoy and snapping a shot over the Fleury's waffle to pull his team within a goal.
St. Louis scored a pair of goals in Game 3 on Monday to rally Tampa Bay into a 2-2 tie before Pittsburgh's Tyler Kennedy scored the game-winner 2:43 into the third.
The Penguins opened the scoring 8:14 into the game when Tyler Kennedy scored Pittsburgh’s first power-play goal in 16 tries in the series. With Lecavalier off for holding, Mark Letestu won an offensive-zone draw from Nate Thompson back to Zbynek Michalek. He fed Kennedy in the left circle, and Kennedy skated in before unleashing a wrist shot that beat Roloson to the short side.
Pittsburgh controlled play in the first period and resumed its dominance in the second, getting a quick reward when Arron Asham picked up a long rebound in the slot and took a harmless-looking wrist shot that deflected off the skate blade of Thompson and past Roloson at 2:39.
Roloson, like his coach, is sure the Lightning are capable of coming back to win the series.
"This is a long way from over," Roloson said. "We came back from 3-1 down twice when I played in Minnesota. We've got the character in this room to do it and we need to play our game for 60 minutes or for however many minutes it's going to take to win."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale