After a season-long eight-game road trip, the welcome confines of Amalie Arena was something the Tampa Bay Lightning were looking forward to, especially since their play had been poor of late. In defeating the Vancouver Canucks 5-2 this evening the Lightning took their first step toward getting their game into post-season form.
Coming into the game the forward combinations were a point of question. Would coach Jon Cooper look to mix things up with the recent call up of Adam Erne? Or would he stick to the status quo in the top six?
I think we figured that out quickly with these line combos:
The first period wasn’t their flashiest or most complete performance, but it was a welcome reprieve from the nightmarish display in Edmonton. The Lightning’s game plan during the opening frame was to not allow Vancouver to establish any kind of momentum, and for the most part, Tampa Bay did that. The shot clock showed an 11-10 advantage for the Lightning, but aside from an early power-play, the Canucks didn’t generate anything scary at even strength.
Conversely, Tampa Bay didn’t generate many dangerous opportunities either. The Canucks made it a point to clog up shooting lanes and make life difficult for the Lightning to get clean shots to Anders Nilsson. Tampa Bay finally broke through Vancouver’s defense as Nikita Kucherov finally ended his goal drought of 11 games. Sometimes a bounce has to go a player’s way for them to end bad streaks and Kucherov is no exception.
After a Victor Hedman slap shot was blocked the puck floated towards Kucherov who then took a backhand shot on net. Nilsson stopped the first attempt, but the rebound went right back to Kucherov who quickly sent another backhand on net. This one was lifted above Nilsson’s shoulder and into the net (the shot seemed to catch him off guard too). Nonetheless, it was a goal Kucherov (and the Lightning) needed; the elation Kucherov showed is more than enough proof of that.
After Kucherov’s goal Tampa seemed to gain some confidence and began to put a little more pressure on Vancouver, but aside from Brock Boeser taking a late penalty, there was nothing of note.
Another issue that was plaguing Tampa Bay since 2018 rang in was the power-play, which ranked 28th since the new year. Starting the second period on the man-advantage provided another chance for Tampa Bay to right the ship on another struggling part of their game.
Over the last two months Tampa Bay has experimented with their units, mixing and matching personnel to provide different looks against teams. It had moments of beauty, but also moments of disappointment. This evening Tampa Bay decided to go back to the units that lit up the NHL earlier in the season (with Callahan taking Ondrej Palat’s spot on the second unit). The move paid off as Yanni Gourde scored his 20th of the season after recovering a rebound from a Mikhail Sergachev point shot.
However, the biggest improvement on the man-advantage was the patience each unit showed and their ability to limit the poor passing that has plagued them recently (aside from Kucherov trying to feed Stamkos a cross-zone pass through three Canucks defenders and failing).
As the second period progressed Tampa Bay started to take more and more control. The Canucks’ ability to get into shooting lanes started to lessen as Tampa Bay began using their speed on the outside to spread out the defense. It finally paid off as the recently called up Adam Erne one-timed his first goal of the season past Nilsson to give Tampa Bay a three-goal cushion. As previously mentioned, the goal started with Tampa Bay gaining the zone with possession and speed on the outside. They then proceeded to cycle the puck around the offensive zone to force the Canucks defense to over-commit on one side. The Canucks left Adam Erne wide open above the right circle and Andrej Sustr fed him a perfect cross-zone pass for the one-timer.
At this point, all of the momentum was in the Lightning’s favor as Vancouver stalled out anytime they entered Tampa’s zone. Additionally, the Lightning forecheck and puck retrieval became even more aggressive as they began to smell blood. Steven Stamkos’s 20th goal of the season was more than enough proof of that.
Yanni Gourde was the sole reason this goal was even possible. He single-handedly stole the puck from behind the Canucks net and fed a pass to Tyler Johnson who had the option to shoot or pass to a wide-open Stamkos sitting in the high slot (seriously, Stamkos was so open he could’ve opened up a restaurant and started taking orders). Johnson chose to pass; 4-0 Tampa Bay.
Just to add insult to injury the last minute of the second period was spent entirely in the Canucks zone as the Killorn-Point-Kucherov line proceeded to produce shots, retrieve pucks, and make Vancouver’s life miserable.
If the first period was rather bland for Tampa Bay, the second was bombastic.
The beginning half of the third period carried along the same as the second had; Tampa Bay controlling the game and Vancouver struggling to create any kind of offensive pressure. Unfortunately, the quickest way for a team struggling offensively to get some momentum is by being on the power-play. Dan Girardi was given a double-minor for high-sticking at 5:12 and the Canucks finally managed to establish an offensive presence. Brock Boeser scored at 6:28 to ruin Vasilevskiy’s shutout bid, and further reminded everyone why he is the leading Calder Trophy candidate (this kid is really really good).
Another way an offensively struggling team can get going is feasting on bounces and poor defensive coverages. Which is exactly what Vancouver did on Sven Baertschi’s 12th goal of the season. Anton Stralman attempted to intercept a pass in the neutral zone but it bounced off his skate and to Bo Horvat. Horvat chipped the puck past Victor Hedman and proceeded to battle with him down the right wing. Stralman came into the slot to try and cut off a pass but misplayed his angle. Baertschi was left wide open on the left side where he promptly put it past Vasilevskiy to close the Canucks within two.
Did anyone else have a flash of deja-vu? Cause I sure as hell did.
A late power-play provided another insurance goal as Victor Hedman blasted a point shot past Nilsson. Outside of that, the third period was similar to the first—blah.
It was good to see Tampa Bay get back into the win column, and by outplaying their opposition for the majority of the game as well. However, their penchant for “playing down” and inconsistently reared its ugly head in the third.
One step at a time though. Tampa Bay still has a long way to go until the post-season and they need to make sure that whatever they choose to do to fix their issues won’t end up being a band-aid.
Power-Play rises up
The Lightning power-play has struggled since 2018 rung in and scoring twice this evening was a welcome sight to see. We’ve been spoiled this season with how the man-advantage has produced, and regression came for Tampa Bay hard. The return to their traditional personnel seemed to reignite their productivity, however, it could have simply been a poor Canucks penalty kill. You decide.
And there’s this:
With that late goal, Victor Hedman (73 career goals) becomes the Lightning’s all-time leading goal scorer for a defenseman, passing Pavel Kubina (72). #Bolts— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) February 9, 2018
3rd Period Slog
Most teams will hang back with a four-goal lead. That isn’t what Tampa Bay should be criticized for; they should be criticized for appearing lackadaisical defensively. The Boeser goal is moot, it was a good shot. The Baertschi goal though? One of the forwards has to get back into the zone quicker once that puck goes off Stralman’s skate and towards Horvat. That was just aggravating to watch. Even afterward, Tampa Bay started to resemble their uneven play from the first period. Vancouver snatched momentum from them and Tampa Bay struggled to take it back (sure they scored on the power-play, but that doesn’t change the overall feel of the third period).
Vasilevskiy didn’t get a shutout.
That’s about it, to be honest. Aside from the sluggish third period, this was a solid game from Tampa Bay.to be honest. Aside from the sluggish third period, this was a solid game from Tampa Bay.