It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. After a sluggish start to the game, the Tampa Bay Lightning rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights, 4-3, in a battle of conference powerhouses. With the win (and the rest of the league idle), the Lightning moved to the top of the NHL standings with 44 points. Steven Stamkos scored the game winner, Gabriel Fortier scored his first career NHL goal, and Anthony Cirelli scored 43 seconds after Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Andrei Vasilevskiy did his best work in the first period to keep the game closer than it should have been and ended up with 38 saves on 41 shots.
There was a bit of a last-minute shake-up as head coach Jon Cooper entered COVID protocol just a few hours before the start of the game. Assistant coach Derek Lalonde took over the line match-ups and picked up the victory, his first behind a NHL bench.
Were the Bolts “lucky” to be tied after the first period? Maybe. Or, if we take a kinder look at things, they were content to let their best player on the ice (Andrei Vasilevskiy) do his thing. While the Golden Knights did fire 17 shots on target, not many of them were second chances. Vasy had pretty good sight lines on the initial shots and the players in front of him swept away any pucks he didn’t bat out of harm’s way.
On the other hand, Vegas’ defensive strategy was to just not let Laurent Brossoit face any shots. Of the 17 attempts the Lightning had, 8 were blocked, and 4 went wide. The home town team was also very effective at keeping the Bolts from entering the zone with the puck. Either their forecheck kept the pucks in their own zone or they disrupted the flow in the neutral zone.
The Lightning’s goal came early in the game when Mikhail Sergachev pinched in, stole the puck and cut towards the middle of the ice. He did a nice job of using his body to shield off the Vegas player before spinning to put the puck on Fortier’s stick. The rookie had a ton of room to pick his spot and he didn’t miss.
As so often with Vasy, the goal against him took a bit of bad bounce. While the Golden Knights were on the power play (courtesy of a Corey Perry trip), Max Pacioretty centered a pass in front of the Lightning netminder. Jan Rutta did a decent job of tying up Mark Stone’s stick, but the puck hit his boot and deflected in.
Credit to Vegas though as once they scored they did spend most of the period in the Lightning’s zone. They ended the first 20 minutes up in unblocked shot attempts (18-9), scoring chances (12-7) and had a lofty edge in expected goals percentage (68.31%).
Things didn’t get better after the intermission as Vegas kept hounding the Lightning all over the ice. They absolutely dominated the neutral zone and used that to press their advantage. It honestly wasn’t surprising that they scored the next two goals. Heck the surprising thing was that they only scored twice, such was their domination of the period.
Lightning fans had a brief scare, those that were still awake, as old friend Jonathan Marchessault binged one off of Vasilevskiy’s mask. The all-world goaltender was visibly annoyed as he skated off the ice, feeling around inside his mouth as if a tooth was knocked loose. He departed down the tunnel and Brian Elliott made an appearance.
The back-up’s ice time was a brief three seconds as he covered up a face-off and then Vasy slid back onto the ice.
While that was a relief for the Bolts fans, their team’s performance wasn’t. Vegas took the lead when Mark Stone scored his second of the night shortly after the Lightning’s power play expired. Tampa Bay was out of sorts on a rush by Vegas as Sergachev and Ross Colton collapsed on Chandler Stevenson. The Vegas forward dropped the pass back to Stone who was wide open and he snapped it home.
If Vasy was annoyed by getting a tooth knocked out, he was down right upset after Nicolas Roy stickhandled around Victor Hedman (the play isn’t going on his Norris highlight reel) and then beat Vasy over his glove.
Offensively, even when they spent time attacking the Golden Knights things didn’t pan out. A two-on-one chance fizzled when Ondrej Palat’s pass to Anthony Cirelli was easily knocked aside by the defense. Corey Perry was wide open to Brossoit’s left, but the pass was in his skates and he couldn’t get much on the shot as it went wide.
But these are the grizzled, battle-worn Lightning. They don’t let a little thing like a two-goal deficit get them down. They kept at it and it paid off with two goals in 43 seconds. First it was Pierre-Edouard Bellemare finishing off a behind-the-net pass from Corey Perry. Then it was Anthony Cirelli digging a puck out of his own skates and sliding it inside the post past Brossoit. Just like that the game was tied.
With a little spark, the Lightning came out and played their best period of the night. They killed off an early penalty and then were able to get the puck a little deeper into the Vegas zone. They didn’t swarm them with offensive firepower, but for the first time all night, the Golden Knights were forced to bring the puck up 200 feet at a time.
Then, the Lightning were able to execute part of their game that has been given them fits for most of the season - the power play. It wasn’t fancy, but it was effective as Victor Hedman fed Steven Stamkos in the left circle and The Captain whistled one by Laurent Brossoit to give the Bolts the 4-3 lead.
They didn’t sit back at that point either as they kept enough pressure on the Golden Knights to ease Vasilevskiy’s workload. Sure there was some scrambling around in the last few minutes, but Vasy made the saves and Bellemare made a nice sprawling block to deny the home team the victory.
The Bolts, minus Coach Cooper, head home for Christmas and are off the ice until a scheduled match-up at home against the Montreal Canadiens on the 28th.
Gabriel Fortier (Mikhail Sergachev) 1-0 Lightning
Mark Stone (Max Pacioretty, Shea Theodore) Power Play 1-1
Mark Stone ties it up in the 1st period with his 5th goal of the season! pic.twitter.com/S6ix3lqDtl— AT&T SportsNet™ | RM West (@ATTSportsNetRMW) December 22, 2021
Mark Stone (Chandler Stephenson) 2-1 Golden Knights
Nicolas Roy (Shea Theodore, Zach Whitecloud) 3-1 Golden Knights
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Corey Perry, Pat Maroon) 3-2 Golden Knights
Anthony Cirelli (Alex Killorn, Zach Bogosian) 3-3
Steven Stamkos (Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat) Power Play 4-3 Lightning