Strong goaltending and timely goal scoring are keys for playoff success, and the Tampa Bay Lightning have gotten just that in the first two games of this series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Tonight’s 2-1 win was more hair raising than Game 1, but the foundations were the same. Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli scored for the Lightning, while Andrei Svechnikov scored the only goal for Carolina. Alex Nedjelkovic made 13 saves on 15 shots, Andrei Vasilevskiy made 31 saves on 32 shots.
Coming out of the first two games of this series up 2-0 wasn’t what any of us expected the Lightning to do. Most figured it would be a tied series going into Game 3, but Vasilevskiy was the biggest difference-maker again. Tampa Bay did a solid job keeping most of the Hurricanes’ pressure to the outside, but that did little to stop Carolina’s relentless attack—especially late in regulation. Tampa Bay didn’t blink at the pressure, though. Time and time again, they battled through each offensive possession of Carolina to keep their lead intact.
Game 1 had a more free-flowing feel, while Game 2 felt like a game that Carolina was destined to win. Tampa Bay never had full control during this game; their goals came from small spurts that caught Carolina off guard. Sometimes that’s how playoff hockey goes. After a rather even first period, it felt like Tampa Bay was in a good spot; until the second period began, and Carolina put its foot on the gas.
During the second, in all situations, the Hurricanes controlled shot attempts 21-12, shots 13-5, scoring chances 11-5, high danger chances 5-3, and had 74% of the expected goals. Yet, Tampa Bay had the lead after an innocuous shot from Killorn eluded Nedjelkovic midway through the period.
I don’t know if Killorn knew Nedjelkovic was cheating to his right or if Tampa Bay scouted that small aspect of his game, but Killorn threaded this puck exactly where it needed to be to beat the rookie goaltender.
It’s good that Tampa Bay was scoring at 5-on-5 because they were dreadful on the power-play this evening. The Lightning had two power-plays in the second period, and neither generated any pressure. Carolina stood at their blueline and dared Tampa Bay to enter the zone with the puck. When the Lightning tried to alter to more of a dump and chase strategy Carolina cycled the puck out. The Hurricanes even managed to create a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush that saw them miss the net. The Lightning did themselves no favors by repeatedly trying the same zone entry on the far right side every time, but make no mistake, Carolina was the biggest reason why the power-play fizzled tonight.
Tampa Bay’s third period was far better than the numbers lay it out to be. In all situations, Carolina led in shot attempts 24-10, shots 11-4, scoring chances 8-6, and had 70% of the expected goals. The issue is most, if not all, of their pressure, came after Cirelli put the Lightning up 2-0 at 8:06.
Bounces are a part of life in hockey, and you take them when you get them. Cirelli got a fortunate bounce off Brady Skjei’s skate and outraced him toward the net before sifting a backhand past Nedjelkovic.
Tampa Bay found a different element to their game en route to their Stanley Cup in 2020. A propensity for scoring timely and backbreaking goals that give them all the edge they need to win. Combine their near-stonewalling defense with a lead in the third period, and it’s abundantly clear why they’re the best team in the league when leading after two periods—they don't let teams back into the game.
Vasilevskiy took center stage once again as he frustrated Carolina’s shooters time and time again. Svechnikov’s goal late in regulation gave Carolina a glimmer of hope, but it was too little too late.
Going back to Tampa with a 2-0 series lead while not playing their best hockey provides an optimistic mentality going into Game 3. However, there are still fundamental issues causing problems for the Lightning that they need to address if they want to really put the pressure on Carolina. Currently, Vasilevskiy is the biggest reason why the Hurricanes have only scored two goals. Yes, Tampa Bay’s defense has helped, but make no mistake, this is Vasilevskiy absolutely denying everything under the sun.
Carolina’s speed is a real issue through two games. Tampa Bay hasn’t had the required urgency with the puck to mitigate that speed either. The Lightning is still a “fast” team, but they’re not as tenacious as the Hurricanes have been; that much has been abundantly clear through two games. Puck management hasn’t been that great either, the worst example being Nikita Kucherov’s horrid turnover while on the power-play that led to a shorthanded 2-on-1.
Still, a 2-0 series lead is the best position the Lightning could’ve hoped for. Hopefully, having the last change will give them an edge in dictating play more consistently than in the first two games. Eventually, Carolina will break through, and if Tampa Bay doesn’t adjust, then that 2-0 series lead will evaporate in a blink.