After a memorable Stanley Cup championship run thousands of miles away in Canada, walking into Amalie Arena for the start of the 2021 season elicited feelings of euphoria, disbelief, and familiarity. A lot has happened since the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars for the 2020 Stanley Cup back in September. The NHL draft, free agency, waiver moves, signings, and uncertainty if hockey would even return for 2021.
That only covers what happened within the NHL scope of reality, the real world had far more dramatic occurrences.
Yet, here we are, on opening night ready to watch the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning begin their title defense. It’s unfortunate that fans aren’t allowed into the building to start the season, but better cautious than reckless.
I’ve spent countless hours in an empty Amalie Arena over the past three years, but entering the building for the first time in months cast intertwining feelings of familiarity and awkwardness watching the Zambonis clean the ice.
It provided a healthy reminder on why I, and by extension many of us, are lucky given the current status of the world (and our government) to sit back and enjoy hockey for an evening—it’s a privilege. It’s easy for that notion fall to the wayside as excitement for the sport we love surges back to the forefront. Let’s not forget that as the year progresses.
Now, game time.
Cal Foote took his solo rookie lap as he took the ice for his NHL debut. Not going to lie, it never gets old.
The Lightning decided to reveal the championship banner, but not fully raise it. They want to hold that ceremony once fans are allowed back into the arena.
A thing of beauty.
Overall, this period went as expected. The Lightning haven’t been the sharpest team after prolonged breaks and the beginning of the first period was no different. For a large portion of the period Chicago had the edge at 5v5. Tampa Bay’s passing and decision making weren’t particularly good as Chicago’s forecheck generated a few quality chances. An early penalty at 7:27 by Jan Rutta for hooking didn’t help matters. Luckily, the Lightning penalty kill was sharp with forward duos of Mitchell Stephens/Anthony Cirelli and Blake Coleman/Barclay Goodrow combined with defensive pairings of Hedman/Cernak and McDonagh/Sergachev.
Shortly after the kill, Steven Stamkos drew an interference penalty on Calvin De Haan at 10:08 and Tampa Bay struck first.
Puck recovery and positioning are key here. Brayden Point’s pass was a little off the mark, but Stamkos recovers it and keeps the play alive by feeding a pass to Hedman high in the zone. All Ondrej Palat has to do is position himself well, which he does, and get to the puck first. Easy goal for Tampa Bay.
After Palat’s goal, the Lightning began to control the pace for the next several shifts, but it wasn’t long before Chicago began to wring some of that pace back.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, all it takes is one shift to tilt everything in their favor.
Forechecking and puck retrieval. A hallmark of the modern day Tampa Bay Lightning. What the replay doesn’t show was how the initial forecheck of Mathieu Joseph and Anthony Cirelli established this play. Without it, this goal doesn’t happen. Yes, the goal was more due to Malcom Subban losing track of the puck and scoring on himself, but it’s the process that we need to focus on.
Tampa Bay wasn’t done yet as 1:39 later they struck again.
Gotta have that hand-eye coordination, and Cirelli definitely has them on this goal. Here’s to hoping he has the offensive breakout we expected of him last year, because the Lightning are going to need it.
Tampa Bay maintained control for the remainder of the period until the final minute where Palat was called for interference off a faceoff win. The penalty kill kept Chicago off the board to close out the period, but there’s still plenty of time left as the second period begins.
Tampa Bay started the period by thwarting the remainder of the Palat penalty and immediately went back to dictating the pace. Whatever rust they had from the early part of the first period was long gone as their forecheck and speed created chaos for Chicago. It eventually led to a holding penalty on Adam Boqvist at 4:01. The Lightning failed to convert on this opportunity, but they had generated a few good chances on the man advantage.
Tampa Bay went back to controlling play until Pius Suter managed to get behind the Lightning defense (which up til this point had done an exceptional job limiting the amount of quality chances on Vasilevskiy) on a partial breakaway. Fortunately, Vasilevskiy stood tall and negated the scoring chance.
As play shifted back toward Chicago’s end, a misplay by Malcolm Subban forced Duncan Keith to panic clear the puck which led to a delay of game penalty at 9:17. Tampa Bay wasted little time capitalizing on it.
“No Nikita Kucherov, no problem” is what was probably going through Point’s head on this goal. Excellent pass to one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game. We will never tire of Steven Stamkos goals from his office.
The remainder of the period saw the Lightning noticeably take their foot off the gas. Chicago began to apply more offensive pressure and Tampa Bay seemed content to chip the puck out on most occasions. That isn’t to say they didn’t have their chances. There was a 3-on-1 that saw the Lightning make one too many passes. A 2-on-1 that saw Point try to power his way to the front of the net only for the puck to be poked away. An intercepted pass by Joseph that almost led to a goal. A Killorn pass that threaded the needle to Coleman before Subban swallowed the shot.
The highlight save of the period, however, goes to Vasilevskiy as he stretched out his left pad to deny an in-close change by Chicago in the waning seconds of the period.
The third period did little change the momentum of the game. Tampa Bay opened the period with the Yanni Gourde line and promptly forced play into the offensive zone where they drew a penalty 40 seconds into the frame. Unfortunately, the Lightning failed to score on this opportunity, but they did generate some good chances off of it.
The pressure didn’t relent though, as the Cirelli line’s forecheck created havoc and a fantastic scoring opportunity for Killorn.
That didn’t slow down Tampa Bay though. Their pressure continued as the period progressed and before long they found the back of the net once again.
This goal was far too easy, from every aspect as Chicago’s defending is questionable to say the least.
The remainder of the period saw Tampa Bay continue to dictate the pace with Chicago generating an offensive chance every few minutes. It was very much a matchup between a championship roster and a rebuilding one.
Chicago did get a power-play with 5:08 left in regulation after Goodrow was called for holding. Unfortuately, Chicago broke the shutout bid as Dylan Strome was credited for a goal after a pass attempt bounced off his stick, then off Cernak’s skate, followed by Vasilevksiy’s skate and into the net.
Tampa Bay closed it out to secure their first victory in their title defending season.
It was great just being back at Amalie in general, let alone watching hockey. That said, it is eerie not having fans in the stands to cheer throughout the game. The absence of the electricity the crowd brings is remarkably strange. I had to think of what my beer league games sound like to stop myself from feeling like something was off.
As for the Lightning, they were exactly what I expected; the better team. They started a little slow, but it didn’t take long for them to get their legs going. Chicago looked outmatch for the entirety of the game. It’s painfully clear how much they miss Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach. However, even with those two in the lineup, Tampa still wins this game, it just might be a 5-2 or 5-3 win. That’s how bad the Blackhawks are in their own end.
Standouts, for me, were Joseph, Stamkos, and Cirelli; the big one being Joseph. After a disappointing season, which included a demotion to Syracuse, it was apparent from puck drop that Joseph has every intention of staying with the big club like he did in 2018-2019. If early signs hold, the Cirelli line with Joseph on it could be a force to be reckoned with.
Stamkos had a three point night and looked like he didn’t miss a step after missing 99% of the playoffs. The takes of his demise were, and have always been, gross exaggerations.
Cirelli reminded everyone why he was expected to breakout last year offensively. He’s a hound in the offensive zone, and it was apparent on nearly every shift he took. From his deflection on Cernak’s shot to the forechecking nightmare he created with Joseph flanking him, it was clear Cirelli has something to prove this year. Hppefully he will produce like we all expect him to this year.