The Tampa Bay Lightning continued their strong start to the season with a 5-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have looked like one of the better teams in the Western Conference this season and while the score line was more lopsided than the game itself, the Lightning certainly earned two points with a strong performance against a good team.
The game started with a nightmare sequence for the Bolts. Immediately after the opening faceoff, all three forwards and Braydon Coburn trapped themselves deep in the offensive zone for no reason. The Lightning didn’t have the puck at the time. The Sharks took advantage of that inexplicable mistake to spring Joonas Donskoi on a two on one. He didn’t score on the rush but the Sharks continued the attack and Donskoi eventually scored on a shot from the slot on the same shift.
The Lightning didn’t respond to the goal particularly well. The Sharks controlled the first period. Brent Burns was a dominant force pushing the attack from the blue line. Tampa did manage to generate some rushes of their own but were unable to complete passes cleanly to take advantage.
The bright spot of the first twenty minutes for the Bolts was Jake Dotchin’s first career goal. It started with forechecking by the Brayden Point line as he and Yanni Gourde applied pressure to the Sharks. The puck eventually kicked back out into open space and Dotchin pounced, hammering it past Martin Jones from the right circle.
Dotchin had to wait a while for his first goal but when he got it, it wasn’t a cheapy. He’s shown that he has a hard shot but just doesn’t always seem to have a great idea of where it’s going. This one was placed well and ended up in the back of the net.
Heading into the first intermission, it looked like the game would be a struggle for the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the best player for Tampa in the first period and it seemed the team would need a stellar performance from him to have a chance at winning. But the game changed completely in the next twenty minutes.
The Bolts ended the first period on the power play and it carried over into the second period. They weren’t able to get set up during either segment and didn’t apply much pressure. But immediately after it ended, they scored a beautiful goal to take the lead. Vlad Namestnikov recovered the puck in the corner and fed a perfect pass to Nikita Kucherov in the slot. Kucherov continued his unreal shooting and put the puck perfectly in the top corner over Martin Jones’ right shoulder.
After that goal, the Lightning slowly took control of the game over the rest of the period. They started to complete passes they missed in the first period and applied pressure to the Sharks and Martin Jones. It paid off with a soft goal for Slater Koekkoek as a weak backhand shot slid past the Sharks’ goalie to increase the lead to two goals.
While the goal itself wasn’t particularly pretty, the pass that set it up was. Anton Stralman made a pass with his back turned from deep in the defensive zone that banked off the right boards directly to Yanni Gourde who was skating through the neutral zone. Gourde then skated the puck into the Sharks’ zone and dropped it to Koekkoek.
Not satisfied with the sweet breakout pass to start the rush on the previous goal, the Lightning top line created a piece of art for the fourth goal. Kucherov threaded a beautiful pass cross ice to Steven Stamkos who passed it back through the goal mouth to Namestnikov for a tap-in finish. Those three are virtuosos together in the offensive zone and they showed it all night.
An extra assist on the goal should go to the Sharks who for some reason decided to play with four skaters for a few seconds prior to that goal. They realized the error and have five skaters on the ice by the time Kucherov made the initial pass, but were still scrambling and the confusion contributed to the Lightning getting such a clean look.
While the Lightning controlled the second period, they didn’t do so to the degree that would justify a three-goal lead. Two of the goals were largely self-inflicted by the Sharks. But even so, the second twenty minutes was a big improvement over the first twenty and showed the Lightning can dictate play against a good team.
In the final period, score effects took over with the Lightning playing a more defensive game to protect their lead and the Sharks generating more shots but nothing particularly dangerous. The Bolts did get a power play and took advantage to add another goal and bring the score to 5-1. Once again, Stamkos, Kucherov, and Namestnikov combined for the goal.
Namestnikov was again the finisher. This time, he fired a nice one-timer from the slot following a setup that started with Stamkos behind the net and then a pass from Kucherov on the left side.
The Lightning have been fortunate in their results this season. They’ve been scoring goals at a much higher rate than would be expected based on their shot volume. That continued tonight. But that isn’t to say they didn’t deserve the outcome. They certainly played well enough to win and the two points were well-earned.
Having such a comfortable lead allowed head coach Jon Cooper to manage each player’s minutes, which will help heading into the second game of a West Coast back-to-back tomorrow night against the Los Angeles Kings. Securing two points alleviates some of the pressure for tomorrow when Peter Budaj will likely start in net.
Tonight was a strong start to the Bolts’ first trip this season through California. If they play like they did against the Sharks, the Lightning will have a good chance of picking up more points against the Kings tomorrow and Ducks on Sunday.