John Tortorella admitted before the game that it would be a challenge to defend against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
He pointed out that his team was playing for the fifth time in the past eight days, so he realized there was a chance fatigue could cause some problems, too.
But worry about Nils Ekman?
Heck, Tortorella probably never gave the guy a second thought before the Penguins' 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay at Mellon Arena last night. And that's assuming he gave him a first one.
But Ekman, who broke into the league with Tampa Bay, had to be on the Lightning's minds after scoring three goals during a four-minute, 10-second span late in the second period -- that's the fastest hat trick in franchise history -- to make it possible for the Penguins to escape with a point in their first game at home after a four-game trip.
Any chance they had of getting two disappeared at 2:41 of overtime, when Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on a breakaway after pulling in a perfect lead pass from linemate Martin St. Louis.
Lecavalier noted that, "I didn't have to adjust my stride or anything," and Crosby realized his club was in a bad way as he watched the play develop.
"You never want to see those two guys connecting," he said. "Especially in overtime."
Crosby's fears were realized when Lecavalier was able to move in on Fleury at full speed and bury a backhander behind him to extend his scoring streak -- and that of St. Louis -- to 10 games.
"The wrong guy got the breakaway," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said.
Too bad for the Penguins (7-4-2) that Ekman didn't get that kind of opportunity. He shot three-for-three from the field while recording what he said was his first hat trick since he played for the Detroit Vipers in the now-defunct International Hockey League.
And that one, he allowed, took more than four-plus minutes to ring up.
"I don't think I've ever done that," he said.
Neither has anyone else in Penguins history. Ekman's improbable rampage broke the franchise mark of 4:17 set by Lowell MacDonald Nov. 13, 1973 against Minnesota North Stars goalie Cesare Maniago.
It also wiped out a 2-0 lead Tampa Bay had built on goals by Dimitry Afanagenov and Brad Richards. Indeed, with five minutes left in the second period, the Lightning seemed to be in reasonably good control of the game.
"I thought we had them at a good spot at 2-0," Tortorella said.
But that began to change at 15:37 when Ekman -- who Therrien had moved into Malkin's spot alongside Crosby and Colby Armstrong -- threw in a shot from the front lip of the crease to make it 2-1.
Ekman then tied the score on a power play at 18:19 by steering a Ryan Whitney shot between the legs of goalie Johan Holmqvist at 18:19 and gave the Penguins their only lead 12.3 seconds before the intermission when he deflected in a Crosby feed.
"I was just the right guy in the right place at the right time," Ekman said. "Obviously, it's not like I did that much. I was just in front of the net, and some guys on our team made great plays. I was just standing there, tipping them in."
That's a fairly accurate assessment, but there had been no indication such an outburst was coming from a guy who had just two goals in the previous 12 games.
"I don't think you ever see that [potential] from anyone," Crosby said. "To get three goals in four minutes is pretty amazing."
If the Lightning was in awe of what it had witnessed, though, it didn't show, and Eric Perrin got the goal that put the game into overtime -- and made Lecavalier's heroics possible -- at 4:47 of the third.
"It was good to come back in the third period," Tortorella said. "We haven't done that too much."
Tampa Bay has done it more often than Ekman rings up natural hat tricks, however, and the one he got last night wasn't as satisfying as it might have been under other circumstances.
"I would have hoped that we would have gotten two points out of it," Ekman said. "Then it would have felt more important to me."Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Nils Ekman celebrates his third goal with teammate Sidney Crosby late in the second period last night. Ekman scored all of his goals in the second period, but the Lightning won, 4-3, in overtime.
Click photo for larger image.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .