TAMPA -- The morning after being on the receiving end of the hardest hit he's taken as a professional, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy was all smiles.
Not that his collision with Tampa Bay's Steve Downie behind his own goal cage in the early stages of Game 3 here at St. Pete Times Forum was an enjoyable experience; rather, he was clearly thrilled with the end result.
Lovejoy was aware he'd have to take a hit in order to not only clear the puck out of his end, but send teammate Maxime Talbot down right wing off the transition.
Downie did, indeed, level Lovejoy and a delayed penalty called was never officially needed since Talbot eventually beat Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson off a snap shot from the right circle. It was a goal that basically enabled the Penguins to set the tempo for a 3-2 victory that gave them a 2-1 lead in this best-of-7 series that resumes Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.
"It was a huge play," Talbot said. "These are the plays that need to be made to get some goals sometimes. It's taking a hit to make a pass and props to Ben for doing that. He made the play and moved the puck, and we got it out and toward the net.
"I didn't have a chance to see him get knocked down behind the net until I saw the replay. After that, everybody on the bench was cheering for him once we knew he did something like that."
While the 27-year-old Lovejoy has averaged fewer minutes in the playoffs (11:01) as compared to the regular season (15:00), he's certainly made the most of his opportunity. An undrafted free agent in his third NHL season, he signed a free-agent contract with the Penguins in July 2008.
"He's a player I've spent a lot of time with the past three or four years," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Ben is a very good defender and penalty killer, and his game has probably evolved with his comfort level on the ice, the puck decisions and breakouts and coming out of the defensive and neutral zones. It's in those areas where he's gotten consistent with his execution and puck management."
Bylsma is well aware that while Lovejoy isn't seeing the same minutes as he did 15 games ago, the native of Concord, N.H., has become an extremely reliable player.
"He's a guy who, when he goes out and maybe gets a matchup against the other team's top line, is still able to be very good defending against those top lines," Bylsma said. "Early on in the season, maybe he wasn't as comfortable in the situational role he was given, and his defending wasn't as consistent. In the second half, he really stepped up with some of the injuries we had. He was counted on to play a defending role against other team's best players. He's good with his stick and position wise, and his skating matches well against other team's top skaters."
There's little doubt Lovejoy will ever forget his first point in a Stanley Cup Playoff game -- sacrificing his body to get the puck to Talbot 5:46 into Game 3 for the opening goal.
"I knew I was in a vulnerable situation and knew that (Downie) was out there," Lovejoy said. "I knew he was coming and knew I was going to take a hit going back for that puck.
"When we scored, it was a great feeling. I was excited that we scored that first goal and excited to be a part of it. This is something you want to do. You want to go back, you want to make plays, you want to take hits for the team to help the team win."
Upon returning to the bench after his big play, Lovejoy, who logged just 8:52 of playing time on 16 shifts, admitted his teammates were extremely appreciative.
"Everyone said something to me," he said. "Everyone was very happy with the play, and they knew that he was coming and it would happen. It worked out well for us."
Penguins fourth-line grinder Michael Rupp, never one to shy away from a big hit, was proud of Lovejoy's commitment on the play.
"Whenever a guy is taking a hit to finish a play, even though it's a big hit against your team, it's something that lifted us up and we know he's all in with everything," Rupp said. "He's going to put himself on the line to make sure the plays are made. He could have bailed on the play, but Ben made sure the puck went around the boards and we were able to score off of it as a result.
"Those little things go a long way."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale