There are few ways to describe Tampa Bay’s 3-2 Game 3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes last night. Some will say Tampa Bay was the better team but didn’t close it out. Others will hark the Lightning failed to put Carolina’s backs against the wall and therefore showed a lack of killer instinct. Even fewer will point to Nikita Kucherov’s penalty in overtime as the central reason why the Lightning lost.
As questionable as the final penalty was, putting yourself in a position to take said penalty 200-feet away from your own net is a bad look no matter which way you cut it.
“A penalty is a penalty,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The big thing was, is it actually a penalty? You want consistency from the refs, and we were getting it. I’ve got no complaints.”
Kucherov is Tampa Bay’s offensive engine. That became wholly indisputable upon his return to the lineup in the first round and how the Lightning went from a good offensive team to a terrifyingly good offensive team—especially on the power-play. His creativity and ability to make plays that no one else on the team can do causes conniption fits for the opposition. If it wasn’t for Kucherov, those power-play goals by Brayden Point and Alex Killorn likely don’t happen.
That doesn’t mean he’s perfect.
The electric Russian has always had a greasy streak in him. Subtle slashes that don’t get called, hits that are borderline or downright suspendable (2019 against Columbus). For as stoic and reserved as he might appear in interviews, Kucherov is an emotional player and just as prone to frustration as anyone else. So, you take the good (all-world talent and game-breaking ability) with the bad (frustration plays or poor puck management moments).
More times than not, Kucherov will lead this team in the right direction.
Overall, it’s hard to get upset over last night’s loss. Tampa Bay stole Game 1 while being outplayed, whereas Carolina returned the favor in Game 3. No one thought this series would be short. These are two of the best teams in the NHL, and anything short of six games (more than likely seven) would easily be categorized as surprising.
“We did a lot of things well,” Victor Hedman said after the game. “We were pushing the play. We were a lot better offensively, winning our battles, taking it hard to the net, and creating havoc.”
The Lightning has always effused confidence in interviews or press conferences. There have been moments of doubt in past years, but their demeanor has never strayed from absolute confidence ever since last year's championship run. They showed it after the Florida Panthers forced a Game 6, and they’re likely to show it again in Game 4 against the Hurricanes.
“We’ve been in spots like this before,” Point said. “I think it’d be different if we felt like we didn’t play a good game, and they won. But I think, for the most part, we’re happy with the way we played.”
That mentality helped the Lightning tie the game after trailing 2-0 in the second period. Their dynamic offense took over on their two power-play goals and showed Carolina they weren’t intimidated by an aggressive penalty kill. Small victories like that have ripple effects later in the series. The power-play was a critical piece of their championship run and was the tilting factor against Florida. In this series, it’s been the area where the Lightning have been more consistent than Carolina. It wasn’t enough to secure a 3-0 series lead, but playoff hockey never goes as you’d expect.
“You can’t hang your head on these,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to turn the page and go to the next one. The playoffs are a big damn roller coaster, and you can’t get too excited when you’re high and can’t get too low when it’s slow. You’ve got to keep trusting your process.”
Process over results. That’s what has made the Lightning into a premier organization in the NHL, and that is what will keep them there.
- Alex Killorn is quietly having a great postseason (6-4-10). Of course, a lot of attention will be on Kucherov, Point, Hedman, and Steven Stamkos, but Killorn’s play shows why the Lightning have kept him throughout the years. Killorn has a history of elevating his play, especially his goal scoring, during the playoffs. During his career, in the regular season he has averaged 0.23 goals per game. In the playoffs, he has averaged 0.32 goals per game. Even before this playoffs, he average 0.28 goals per game.
- I’ve mentioned this many times before, but I feel it needs to be reiterated. This core will end up topping nearly every category of Tampa Bay’s all-time scoring categories for the postseason (and regular season). I know the 2004 core was beloved because they were the first, but when this group finally moves on and retires, we’re going to look back and be like, “Yea, this was the best stretch of Lightning hockey ever.”
- From the broadcast, it looked and sounded like Amalie Arena was booming once again. I cannot overstate how wonderful that was to hear. I can’t wait to hear it live again. [Editor’s Note: My ears are still ringing in the morning from being in the arena last night.]
- I couldn’t watch most of the game live due to my own beer league game last night (I had it DVR’d to re-watch once I got home). I found it humorous that my game mirrored the Lightning. Never led, had to come back to tie it, and small gaffes cost us a game we controlled for vast swaths of time.