In a game where 10 NHL regulars suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the results were about as expected given that the other team fielded mostly prospects. The Lightning defeated the Nashville Predators 3-1 in a game that was never really in question.
Thirty-three seconds in, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos quickly showed that their chemistry was still at an elite level. The Russian pivot cycled the puck along the right boards before backhanding a pass to Steven Stamkos who then stopped in an instant to feed his own backhand pass across the offensive zone to Victor Hedman. Hedman wristed one past Juuse Saros to put the Lightning up 1-0 before the first minute had even finished.
"Euphoric" can’t really describe the explosion of noise that engulfed Amalie Arena after that goal. The line of Brayden Point, Stamkos, and Kucherov set the pace at the drop of the puck, and the Lightning controlled this game for large portions of time.
Aside from the top line dominating in practically every facet of the game, the rest of the Lightning roster did a solid job stifling any kind of offensive pressure Nashville could produce in addition to generating some offensive chances themselves.
The most noticeable prospects on the ice for Tampa Bay were Matthew Peca, Yanni Gourde, Mikhail Sergachev, and Ben Thomas. Peca is a puck hound, no matter if he is at even strength, the power-play, or the penalty kill. Peca does not stop battling, and it was most notable during a penalty kill in the second period where he single-handedly wasted 15-20 seconds of power-play time for the Predators by maneuvering around three Nashville players to keep the puck in the Nashville zone.
Sergachev was rock solid throughout the game. Interesting note while watching the defender was how calm he looked on the ice; it could’ve been how he skated or he is able to hide his emotions really well, but Sergachev never looked panicked or worried about anything while he was on the ice. Calm, poised, physical, and positionally sound were most noticable attributes of the Russian defenseman.
Gourde was his typical self this evening. Hard on the forecheck and backcheck while battling for every puck he could get near. His efforts were rewarded when Ryan Callahan showed wonderful patience at the bottom of the right faceoff circle as he slid a pass across the slot to a streaking Gourde who tapped the puck in for an insurance goal which put the Lightning up 3-0 with 17:34 left in regulation.
The surprise of the evening was Ben Thomas. Thomas started to become more impactful as the season progressed last year for Syracuse, and this evening he was paired with Victor Hedman to see what he could; Thomas didn’t disappoint. Aside from two penalties (high sticking and slashing) the younger defender was a rock for the Lightning. His presence on the penalty kill and even strength were noticeable as he made numerous plays to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone as well as neutralizing any dangerous opportunities that Nashville was able to generate in the defensive zone. All four of these players are going to make Jon Cooper and his staff’s decisions on roster spots very difficult (which isn’t a bad thing).
The shot clock will show that Nashville outshot Tampa Bay. However, seven of their shots came off the power-play. Again, penalties were called often in this game; a total of 12 penalties were called between the two clubs (5 on Nashville and 7 on Tampa Bay). Luckily, the Lightning penalty kill was a perfect 7-for-7 on the evening and aside from an early third period power-play the Predators never really got close to scoring with the man advantage.
The reason Nashville didn’t score more than once was very much due to the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy. The baby goalie was phenomenal tonight; as the game progressed the Lightning made a few sloppy passes in the defensive zone which led to some great chances for the Predators, but he thwarted nearly every single one.
The only shot that got past him was an Austin Watson wrist shot from the lower part of the right faceoff circle that Vasilevskiy had no chance on. Though, with how Vasilevskiy had played prior to the goal one might’ve thought he was going to save that shot as well (he was that good this evening). So, at least we know he is human and not some Russian engineered robot that devours pucks (let my imagination run ok?)
Overall, the pace was set by Tampa and they forced Nashville into a reactive position. As the game progressed it was noticeable that the Lightning let off the gas a little bit; the NHL regulars came out and asserted their dominance and then just played their game, though they didn’t try to blowout their opponent. Vasilevskiy was the best player on the ice this evening while a few young guns continued to make a statement with their play. This writer thinks there may be some hard decisions come cutting time for the coaching staff.