The Lightning headed to Columbus tonight looking to extend a five-game winning streak and they did so emphatically with a 5-1 victory over the Blue Jackets. They didn’t start well but they finished strong. Nikita Kucherov was the best player on the ice racking up five more points. Brayden Point had two goals. Steven Stamkos had one. And Andrei Vasilevskiy came up just shy of his third consecutive shutout.
As a whole, the team isn’t playing quite as well as a as they were earlier in the season. But they didn’t need to tonight. Because the stars dominated the game.
The Lightning did not play well in the first period. Columbus controlled play from about four minutes into the game until the final whistle to head to intermission. But sometimes great players can cover for a struggling team. And that’s what happened through the first twenty minutes. Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov were enough to get the Lightning an early lead.
The game started with a quick power play to the Lighnting just two minutes after puck drop. The Bolts power play has been great lately but so has the Jackets penalty kill. Tampa got one good chance early when Kucherov slid a pass through the slot to Steven Stamkos for a one timer but the captain fired the puck off the crossbar. After that, Columbus prevented the Lightning from getting set in the zone and killed the penalty effectively.
After the penalty ended, the game turned heavily in favor of the Jackets. They kept the puck in the offensive zone and put pressure on the Lightning net. They created multiple scrums in the crease and made life difficult for Andrei Vasilevskiy. But he was locked in turning away every shot and keeping calm amidst the chaos.
Tampa struck first completely against the run of play. A Jackets player picked Nikita Kucherov’s pocket and started a 4 on 2 break the other direction. Ryan McDonagh made a great play to step up shut down the break and Erik Cernak sent the puck back the other direction. Yanni Gourde passed to Kuch who went backhand top shelf to beat Joonas Korpisalo.
Columbus responded creating one of their best chances in the game moments after the goal. They got Kole Sherwood free in the slot with plenty of time to pick his spot. Vasilevskiy again made the save and held the newfound lead.
With five minutes left in the period, Kuch struck again giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead. This time, Braydon Coburn forced a turnover in the neutral zone, Kucherov picked up the puck, and skated in to secure another multi-point game. He’s officially on fire NBA Jam style.
With a little over two minutes left in the period, the Lightning took a penalty. The penalty kill did an ok job and Vasilevskiy did the rest. His toughest save came on a deflection off Mathieu Joseph. Vasy was pushing to his right across the crease and the puck crossed him up but he managed to kick his left pad out to barely make the save.
At the end of the first period, the Jackets had a big lead in shots and smaller lead in expected goals.
The Bolts were better in the second period than in the first. They started strong getting the first good chance of the game. Nikita Kucherov was involved again setting up Brayden Point for a good look from the slot but Korpisalo made the save the keep the Jackets’ deficit at two goals.
Things took a bad turn for Tampa though despite the strong play. Victor Hedman left the bench a couple minutes into the period and did not return. Head coach Jon Cooper said Hedman is out with a lower body injury but he didn’t seem to think the injury is serious. The Lightning have been conservative with injuries this year so let’s hope this is just more of the same.
The Jackets pushed back a bit at the 12 minute mark with some good zone time. They got a power play with about eight minutes left but couldn’t generate much. Their best chance came as the penalty expired when Oliver Bkjorkstrand had a good look on the rush. But Vasy was up to the task.
Things started to go sideways for Columbus at the end of the period. First, Josh Anderson crashed into Vasilevskiy with just under two minutes left to put the Lightning on the power play. Then, with 52 seconds still on the kill, they took a too many men penalty managing to somehow get six skaters on the ice.
The Lightning took advantage almost immediately as Kucherov fed a perfect pass to Stamkos who buried it. That assist for Kuch tied the single-season franchise record at 68. That record would not last long.
At the end of the period, the Bolts still trailed by a wide margin in shots but had pulled ahead in expected goals.
Things started to go bad for Columbus at the end the second period. And they really went wrong in the first minute of the third. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point combined to end the game putting the Lightning in front 5-0.
First, Point scored on the power play that carried over from the second. He took the puck in the neutral zone and rushed in alone against the Columbus defense. They played him softly and he took advantage beating Korpisalo from the slot. Kuch set the team’s single-season assist record on the goal.
A minute later, Point scored again. This time, Kucherov set him up with a perfect pass across the slot for a one timer. Korpisalo had no chance to get over and cover the shot.
At this point, I’m gonna be honest. I kind of stopped paying attention. That play gave Kucherov five points in the game. He scored the first two goals and assisted on the next three giving him 99 on the season. Let me repeat. 99 points. In 60 games. Those are numbers we’ve never seen in this era of NHL hockey.
According to Hockey Reference, the last players to score at least 99 points in their teams’ first 60 games of the season were Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-1996. I had a hard time focusing on the rest of the game because I cannot get my brain to process what Kucherov is doing right now. He’s making 2019 goalies look like mid 90s goalies. He’s racking up multi-point games at an absurd pace.
He’s from another planet. I don’t understand it. And if he keeps this up, he’s going to run away with the Hart Trophy. All the “he plays on a good team” arguments are going to go in the garbage where they belong if he threatens 120 points. A few years ago, I wasn’t sure we would ever see a player score like this again. Now, the question is just how far Kuch can push toward history.
Aside from the Hedman injury, the only other disappointment in this game was Columbus scoring with under two minutes left. The Bolts successfully killed a four-minute penalty in the second half of the period but gave up a goal in garbage time to Lucas Sedlak. That snapped Vasilevskiy’s shutout streak at two games.
Vasilevskiy’s shutout streak ended at 183:53, three full games worth of hockey though not on the scoresheet— Diana C. Nearhos (@dianacnearhos) February 19, 2019
In total, his streak lasted over three games worth of time but he’ll only get credit for the two shutouts. The skaters were frustrated after allowing the goal having clearly wanted to get their goalie across the finish line. Even so, 180+ minutes of shutout hockey is an amazing accomplishment and Vasy has been at the top of his game lately.
Tonight was about Vasilevskiy and Kucherov. The former is playing like one of the best goalies in the league right now. The latter is playing like the best player in the world. And it’s so fun to watch.
I hope everyone is enjoying these moments because the stress of the playoffs is coming. But for now, revel in what Nikita Kucherov is doing. He’s doing things we haven’t seen this generation.
He’ll be back on the ice quickly as the Lightning head to Philadelphia tomorrow to face the Flyers. His next point will be his 100th.