Curtis McElhinney’s last win came on February 17th, 2020 when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 in overtime. His last appearance in a game was eleven months ago in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings. It would have been understandable if he had been a little rusty in his return to live action. He was anything but that as the Lightning defeated the Nashville Predators 4-1 on Monday night. It was their first regulation win in Nashville since February 2004.
McElhinney made 23 saves on 24 shots while Anthony Cirelli scored twice to lead the Lightning to their fifth straight victory and eighth in ten games this season. Blake Coleman and Steven Stamkos added empty net goals after Dante Fabbro had cut the Tampa Bay lead to 2-1 midway through the final period.
The Lightning really wanted to make sure Andrei Vasilevskiy had the night off as he wasn’t even in uniform on Monday night. He was a scratch while Christopher Gibson served as the back-up. Alexander Volkov was back in the line-up as Coach Jon Cooper went back to a 12-forward, 6-defenseman rotation. Cal Foote also had the night off.
Certainly, one of the things the Lightning wanted early in the game was for McElhinney to see some easy shots to help him adjust to tracking pucks in a game situation. Nashville’s first shot was unscreened from the point and the Lightning netminder easily kicked it into the corner. It was a nice and simple way for him to get back into the flow.
Unfortunately, flow wasn’t something that would accurately describe the first ten minutes of the game. There was a choppiness to the game with quite a few whistles and staunch defending in the respective defensive zones. The Lightning did get a few shots on net, but they were from far out without any screens or rebounds to pounce on for second chances.
Right in the center of the ice, Luke Schenn and Mathieu Olivier decided to generate a little energy by paying tribute to the late Leon Spinks, Off of a center-ice face-off Olivier dropped the gloves, wisely stepped around Pat Maroon and matched up with Schenn. Olivier cut the veteran early, but Schenn pumped in some lefts to bring the fight to a draw.
Throughout a long season, things tend to even up on the ice. Anthony Cirelli has had a handful of prime scoring chances that have not resulted in goals. So it fitting that a seemingly innocuous shot on net from along the right side dasher somehow how found its way into the back of the net on the short side.
Anthony Cirelli (Alex Killorn, Erik Cernak)
If there was anything slightly worrisome from the Detroit series, it was that the power play went goalless in seven opportunities. At times they struggled to entered the zone and bled away a lot of time just trying to get set up. A Calle Jarnkrok penalty with five minutes to go in the period gave the Lightning a chance with the man advantage and while they didn’t score, they did have several solid chances and looked a lot smoother.
Shots were 17-6 in favor of the Lightning as they played one of the most complete periods of the season. They also controlled even strength shot attempts (18-12) and scoring chances (6-2). The best way to ease a goaltender back into the flow is to limit the amount of dangerous shots he sees and Tampa Bay did that as they only allowed one chance from a high-danger area.
Moments after Renne denied Yanni Gourde with his blocker on a breakaway, Victor Hedman was sent to the penalty box for tripping Viktor Arvindson. The best chance for Nashville was a right-circle shot by Nick Cousins was knocked aside by McElhinney. There was a slightly scary moment for Nashville shortly after when Erik Haula went to hit Jan Rutta, missed, and fell face first into the end boards. He was cut over the left eye, but otherwise seemed okay on the bench.
Chances for the Lightning kept coming off of their aggressive play in the neutral zone. Mathieu Joseph peddled into the Nashville zone and fired a shot that went wide of the net, the puck bounced directly onto Alex Volkov’s stick, but the rookie made a bit of a mess with his first touch (as they would say in England) and he wasn’t able to swat the puck into the empty half of the net.
Effort takes little talent to execute, but when you do match effort with talent, good things tend to happen. Midway through the period Brayden Point hustled into the Nashville zone after a loose puck and drew a penalty. Then the power play finally cashed in. It wasn’t the first unit, although they had some solid chances, instead it was Cirelli once again from a bad angle sweeping it into the net. Nashville was a little disorganized after Mikhail Sergachev put one off the post and it took Renne a second to find the puck. By the time he did, it was too late to get over and cover the short side.
Anthony Cirelli (Mikhail Sergachev, Patrick Maroon)
Leadership comes in all forms, sometimes it’s standing up for your self and not waiting for someone else to fight your battles. Following a quick snap shot that Renne easily stopped, Cousins glided by Steven Stamkos, barking something at the captain. Stamkos, didn’t hesitate, dropping a headlock on the defenseman before shedding his gloves and trying to get some shots in. Hedman joined his buddy in the box, both players with roughing penalties, which gave the Predators a late power play.
Hedman unleashed a huge shot that went just wide after his penalty expired. The Lightning were on a power play after Jarnkrok tripped up Alex Killorn. It was another strong period for the Lightning as they limited the Predators to just 7 shot attempts at even strength.
It would have been nice for the Lightning to capitalize on the power play, but Nashville had their best kill of the game and kept the Lightning from making it 3-0. Despite their better play in their own zone, the home team struggled to generate anything on offense and Tampa Bay kept denying them any time with the puck.
Not taking a penalty would have been a wise option for the Lightning as they didn’t want to give the Predators any type of momentum. Sometimes, Alex Killorn makes some less-than-wise decisions, as he did when he slashed Roman Josi in the Nashville zone. Killorn’s teammates bailed him out by killing off the penalty. For the first time all game it seemed like they were scrambling a bit in their own, but McElhinney bailed them out with some nice saves.
Nashville drew another penalty midway through the period as Cirelli took Filip Forsberg out along the boards. The refs decided it was tripping and the Lightning were on their back foot for a bit. The Predators were able to keep the puck in the zone for the entire time and they finally found pay dirt. Dante Fabbro fired a shot from distance and McElhinney never saw the puck as it zoomed by his glove and right pad to make the score 2-1 in favor of the Lightning.
Dante Fabbro (Matt Duchene)
Dante Fabbro finally gets Nashville on the board with a slapper from the point pic.twitter.com/4u3WYW3BCZ— SB Nation NHL (@SBNationNHL) February 9, 2021
Even though the Lightning dominated for two-plus periods of the game, they didn’t have a comfortable lead and had to remain sharp in their own zone as Nashville kept pushing play. Despite spending more time on defense, Tampa Bay didn’t lose their defensive shape, and they forced the play to the perimeter while controlling the front of the net.
Younger, less-experienced teams tend to lose their composure late in close games. They don’t quite get to the red line when they dump the puck in and pick up unnecessarily icings. Or they panic a little with the puck and fire it out of their zone blindly leading to turnovers. The Lightning are not a young, inexperienced team. They played with the same dedicated pace that they had all game long and eventually found the break they needed. With the Nashville net empty, the Blake Coleman line forced a turnover and Coleman snapped a shot into the empty net to make it 3-1.
Blake Coleman (unassisted)
A desperate net front scramble by Nashville led to McElhinney having to make a sprawling with the back of his blocker to keep the score 3-1. The puck eventually came out of the zone and Steven Stamkos put it into the empty net for a goal.
Steven Stamkos (Brayden Point)