The Tampa Bay Lightning headed into their game against Arizona as a heavy favorite. This season has been rough for the Coyotes. After making what seemed to be smart moves in the offseason, they looked to be ready to take a step toward being a competitive NHL team. That hasn’t happened. They’ve struggled just as much as last year.
The Lightning are in the opposite position. They’ve been among the best teams in the league. On paper, this game looked about as one-sided as a game could be. But it didn’t start that way.
Arizona kept pace with the Lightning fairly well through the first ten minutes or so of the game. They created a couple of chances and Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made some saves to keep the game tied. A little less than halfway into the period, the dam finally broke.
The Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov created an extended stretch of offensive zone pressure supported by Victor Hedman and Jake Dotchin at the blue line. They generated a barrage of shots and kept Coyotes goalie Annti Raanta scrambling. The shift was so dominant that the Lightning changed all five players without Arizona being able to clear the zone.
When the Coyotes did finally get the puck out of the zone, they tried to get a change. Unfortunately for them, the puck barely made it to center ice and Tampa immediately regained the zone. Ryan Callahan skated the puck to the net and drew a penalty.
The Bolts top power play unit won the draw and spent the next seventy five seconds pelting Raanta with shots. Eventually, Kucherov passed the puck through the slot to Stamkos who hammered his trademark shot at the open net. Raanta somehow made the save but Namestnikov tapped in the rebound for an easy goal.
Just a few seconds after the first goal, the Lightning struck again. Tyler Johnson made a beautiful pass to Ondrej Palat to start the breakout. The Coyotes defense was disorganized and Palat passed to Brayden Point who skated in on Raanta uncontested and beat him five hole.
The Lightning kept the pressure going and drew another penalty shortly after the second goal. At that point, it felt like the game might get away from Arizona completely. Fortunately for them, Alex Killorn took an unnecessary offensive zone penalty and Arizona was able to regroup from there.
The remainder of the period was more even but the game was never really close after that barrage in the middle of the first period.
The second period looked much like the end of the first. The Lightning were confidently in control for all twenty minutes. They tested Raanta throughout the period but the Coyotes goalie kept his team in the game making multiple impressive saves.
At the other end of the ice, Vasilevskiy didn’t have much work to do but on the rare occasions that Arizona was able to get to dangerous spots, the Lightning goalie did his part to maintain the lead. The Lightning were solid in their own zone for most of the night, which helped to their goaltender.
When the Lightning did finally get one past Raanta in the second, it required a deflection. The play started with Namestnikov dumping the puck into the zone and chasing it on the forecheck. Victor Hedman recovered it along the boards and dropped it to Kucherov at the point. Kucherov took the shot and it deflected off Oliver Ekman-Larsson in front of the net.
The brightest spot amidst a dark season for Arizona has been the emergence of Clayton Keller as a Calder Trophy candidate. He showcased part of the reason why with an impressive shot on the power play to cut the lead to two goals with about eight minutes left in the second period. Vasilevskiy was screened on the play and Keller beat him cleanly with a wrister from the right circle.
Back at even strength, the Lightning retook control of the game for the remainder of the period. They nearly added another goal when Ryan Callahan pounced on a rebound and put it in the net but the play had already been blown dead because the officials lost sight of the puck in the crease.
If the Coyotes had ideas about climbing back into the game in the third period, the Lightning put those to rest quickly. Anton Stralman hit Brayden point with an excellent breakout pass. Point dropped the puck to Tyler Johnson who skated in and beat Raanta with a confident shot. The move up into the top six seems to have helped Johnson find his game again and he looks much more like himself than he did a few weeks ago.
The game got a little ugly as the third period progressed. Brayden Point (yes, Brayden Point) fought Brad Richardson after they fell along the boards and Richardson kicked Point’s stick away from him. Shortly thereafter, Ryan Callahan and Oliver Ekman-Larsson fell into the end boards chasing a puck. Both players appeared to be injured on the play. Ekman-Larsson returned to the game but Callahan did not.
The Lightning forward appeared to suffer an arm injury of some sort and was in obvious pain as he headed directly to the locker room after the play. Callahan has been playing well lately and his line with Chris Kunitz and Cedric Paquette has been one of the best for the Lightning lately. Given his injury history over the last two seasons, another significant injury would be a huge disappointment.
The unnecessary stuff continued a few minutes later as Max Domi threw an elbow to the head of Mikhail Sergachev. It didn’t land cleanly but it certainly looked like an attempt at an intentional headshot. That led to another fight between Chris Kunitz and Nick Cousins and both teams ended up with multiple players in the penalty box.
The game calmed down after that as both teams got back to focusing on playing hockey. The Lightning continued to control the game and the Coyotes weren’t able to threaten to get back in the game.
The Lightning earned two points on the road, which is exactly what they needed to do against an inferior team. The big question will be how serious the Callahan injury is. If he’s hurt, that will open a spot for either J.T. Brown or for the coaches to use an 11/7 alignment so the team can keep Slater Koekkoek in the lineup when Braydon Coburn returns.
The Lightning play next in Colorado on Saturday. That’s another game where they’ll have an advantage on paper. And if they can replicate their performance against Arizona, they should be able to secure another two points.