Tuesday evening, in overtime, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3, and extended their winning streak to three games. Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos scored for the Lightning. Nino Niederreiter, Seth Jarvis, and Sebastian Aho scored for the Hurricanes. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 16 of 19 shots, while Antti Raanta stopped 28 of 32.
On the one hand, this was a frustrating game for the Lightning, while on the other, a reinforcing moment for this season's team. This was a game the Lightning out-attempted (39-31, outshot (32-19), generated more scoring chances (23-20), generated more high danger chances (12-7), and generated a better expected goals percentage (55%) than their opponent. Yet, Carolina was the beneficiary of fortunate tips, deflections, and overall fluke circumstances that kept Tampa Bay from reaping the rewards of their play. That didn't stop the back-to-back champs, though—they showed their fortitude all night by relentlessly attacking the Hurricanes and not allowing puck luck to dictate how the game would go.
Tampa Bay started the game by dominating the opening eight minutes of play, putting seven shots on goal before Carolina managed to get one. The issue—it was the one defensive breakdown the Lightning had, and they paid for it.
The Lightning refused to let that goal get to them as they continued to dictate everything on the ice. Their pressure didn't provide any goals for the remainder of the first period, but a penalty drawn at the period's conclusion provided an opportunity to even things up, and it didn't take long for the Lightning man advantage to strike.
Carolina pushed back, though, as they played their best period during the middle frame and managed to regain the lead just eight minutes after the Lightning tied it due to another blown defensive coverage and a fortunate tip.
The champs shrugged off that goal by evening it up after a brief stint of 4-on-4 hockey.
As the period progressed, Carolina started wresting more control and dictating the game as they normally do. During this surge, another fortunate deflection gave them their third lead of the game.
Then the third period happened, a period where Tampa Bay reminded Carolina who exactly they were playing. The Lightning attack was relentless all period, forcing the Hurricanes to scramble and heavily rely on Raanta to stand on his head to keep their lead intact. This desperation led to another power-play opportunity early in the period, and Tampa Bay made them pay.
Tampa Bay's power-play coming alive the way it did this evening was exactly the confidence boost this team needed. This season has seen the Lightning special teams dip into mediocrity after years of being in the top five for both units. Over the past several games, both special teams' units have appeared to revert to what was expected of them entering the season, and that's bad news for teams that take a lot of penalties.
"We talked between the second and third," said Stamkos. "This was probably one of the better games that we played. Obviously, we were down going in the third; we didn't change much. I like our approach in the third."
That approach led to a dominating end of regulation where Raanta made a bevy of saves, the best being on a streaking Point in the slot that should've been a goal. Then, overtime came, and just like they did against Detroit, Tampa Bay didn't give Carolina much of a chance to control the puck, sending the Hurricanes to the penalty box for the fourth time just 26 seconds into the extra period.
It took 26 seconds for the Lightning to seal the comeback win in a game they deserved to win in regulation.
Championship fortitude is in the fabric of this team's DNA; they don't falter, they don't panic, they don't get down on themselves. After getting knocked down, they get back to what won them two consecutive Stanley Cups.
"Panic has never set in with this group," said Stamkos. "We weren't making excusing about the schedule or the amount of road games. We were just trying to figure things out. Sometimes it takes a while. It's a long season. We have a group that is poised in these situations."
That poise was on display in every period this evening. Sure, they only won by a single goal, and yes, giving up three goals on 19 shots is not a good look, but context is required on each of those goals against. Overall, the Lightning has steadily improved, and it's shown during this winning streak.
"We're playing a much more complete game," said Jon Cooper. "Defensively, we're way better. That's where it all starts. We responded well. We were down pretty much the whole game until the end. So, you gotta keep fighting your way back and not getting frustrated. I thought we did that."
Now, Tampa Bay looks forward to two bottom-dwelling teams with the opportunity to extend their winning streak to five games before facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs next Monday in a massive divisional match-up. With the way they've been playing during these past three games, this is a team that no one wants to play against.