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Hockey Penguins, Lightning look to avoid surprising playoff sweeps

New York Islanders goaltender Robin Lehner (40) stops a shot by Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) during the third period in Game 3 of an NHL first-round hockey playoff series in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sunday, April 14, 2019.

Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Lightning carved out their own slice of NHL history during a dominant regular season in which they tied the league record for most victories.

A fourth straight loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, and the Lightning will have a chapter of NHL lore all to themselves. And not the good kind.

No Presidents’ Trophy winner has ever been swept in the opening round of the playoffs. Yet Tampa Bay finds itself three periods away from an unprecedented postseason exit heading into Game 4.

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Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins face a similarly bleak outlook.

Three games against the largely unknown and decidedly unheralded New York Islanders have come and gone. The Penguins don’t have a win, Crosby doesn’t have a point and if Pittsburgh can’t find a way to solve New York’s Byzantine defensive structure and red-hot goaltender Robin Lehner, a team that entered the playoffs in search of a third Stanley Cup in four years will head into an off-season of soul searching.

“We can’t get those games back at once,” Crosby said. “You’ve got to trust what’s gotten to you to this point and what our strengths are and how we’ve gotten here.”

Only four teams have ever climbed out of an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series, the last by the Los Angeles Kings against the San Jose Sharks in the 2014 Western Conference quarter-finals.

The Penguins own the NHL’s longest active playoff streak at 13 years and counting. Not once has their stay lasted just four games. Yet they have been unable to generate any sustained pressure against Lehner, a journeyman who is flourishing at the back end of coach Barry Trotz’s defence-first system.

Still, Lehner blanches at the idea that the Islanders – who have just one postseason series win since 1993 – are close to pulling off some kind of upset.

“It can’t be a surprise,” said Lehner, who has stopped 103 of the 108 shots he’s faced so far. “This team was no fluke this year. Everyone looks and compares players and all that stuff. I look at our roster and see a lot of really good players, and I see a really good organization and great coaching and great defencemen. I see a lot of heart. It shouldn’t be a surprise.”

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Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gave his team Monday off in attempt to give his players a chance to give their legs a rest. Sullivan, who has lost just once in 10 previous playoff series in Pittsburgh, planned to use the down time to catch up on Game of Thrones.

He knows more than anyone that if the Penguins can’t get it together, summer is coming earlier than anyone expected.

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