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Paul, Colton, and Hagel shine as Lightning throttle Blackhawks, 5-2

The new third line might be something special.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2, extending their winning streak to four games. Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Ross Colton, and Brandon Hagel scored for the Lightning. Calvin de Haan and Alex DeBrincat scored for the Blackhawks. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 21 of 23 shots and extended his domination of the Blackhawks with his 13th consecutive win over them (he is 13-0-0 against Chicago). Kevin Lankinen stopped 38 of 42 shots. Tonight was also the return of Tyler Johnson (traded over the offseason), who received a touching video tribute and a thunderous standing ovation from the Lightning faithful.

This game also featured Brandon Hagel, Taylor Raddysh, and Boris Katchouk squaring off against their former teams.

From puck drop to the final horn of regulation, the Lightning dominated this game. The talent disparity was on full display up and down the lineup as it felt Tampa Bay didn’t leave the offensive zone. The tone was set early as Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn linked up for a 2-on-1 chance within the first two minutes, followed by an early power-play that saw the Lightning pepper Lankinen with a variety of dangerous shots and Tampa Bay’s top line dominating every shift they were on the ice. Tampa Bay had ten shots on goal within the first six minutes and would soon take an early lead.

Superb puck movement and a willingness to absorb two big hits by Nikita Kucherov allow this goal to happen. Tampa Bay followed this up with a strong penalty kill, which led to Chicago taking a penalty on a shorthanded chance. The abbreviated power-play saw them pick apart Chicago’s passive defense shortly after the man advantage expired.

Gifted players making this entire sequence look easy—it’s what they do.

Tampa Bay’s aggressiveness had its drawbacks; a Kirby Dach breakaway was the first inkling of danger. The second was an inability to control the puck behind the net or clear its front as Chicago managed to cut the score to one on a harmless point shot.

Chicago managed to tie the game after a Cal Foote tripping penalty late in the period; the penalty kill fell apart, with Erik Cernak and Hagel making poor decisions that led to the goal.

Cernak’s over-aggressiveness here seems odd, given he knew he didn’t have a lot of support behind him, though it’s hard to criticize him entirely given he was trying to make a play. On the other hand, Hagel completely loses himself scrambling back into the play. He misreads Victor Hedman, who is taking away the angle, and vacates the middle of the ice where DeBrincat is left all alone—that’s an excellent way to gift a goal to any team in the NHL.

Tampa Bay didn’t falter after coughing up a two-goal lead. Instead, they doubled down on the aggression, especially their new ‘third line’ of Nick Paul - Hagel - Colton. Paul, specifically, really stood out this evening with his play. Passing, forechecking, creativity, and tenacity were all traits expected of the former Ottawa Senator, just in a small dose. Still, the way he has responded after a sub-par beginning to his Lightning tenure is remarkable.

Colton will get the credit for burying the rebound, but Paul is the catalyst for this entire sequence. His controlled entry, speed, puck control, and awareness are on full display before he feeds a pass to Cernak at the point. The early signs for Paul are positive, and his next impressive play would only magnify that even more.

Paul, deservedly so, will get all the attention on his ridiculous no-look between the legs pass, but let’s not forget Hagel’s fantastic breakout pass and Foote’s clean zone entry, setting the stage for Paul’s beautiful assist on Colton’s second goal of the night. On the night, this new third line was terrifyingly dominant; they out-attempted Chicago 15-3, outshot them 12-3, ran away with the scoring chances 10-0, scored twice, and generated an expected goals percentage of 95.65 percent. That is absolutely insane.

Hagel was the only skater pointless on the line before his empty netter in the dying seconds, but make no mistake; this line is a game-changer for the Lightning.

An interesting thing about this line is how much they played. At 5v5, they played 8:58 compared to the Killorn - Cirelli - Palat trio’s 8:15 and the Perry - Bellemare - Maroon trio’s 9:10. If this new line keeps controlling play, it will be difficult for any team to matchup up against Tampa Bay’s forward lines.

There is a caveat about their performance tonight, Chicago is an atrociously poor defensive team, and Tampa Bay is one of, if not the, best forechecking teams in the NHL. The Lightning feast on defensively passive squads, and tonight was no different. Lankinen was the biggest reason the score didn’t read 10-2 once the game concluded—Tampa Bay was that dominant from start to finish.

They out-attempted (56-26) them, outshot (43-23) them, dominated scoring chances (40-8) and high danger scoring chances (16-3), and generated an expected goals percentage of 76 percent. So, Tampa Bay boat raced a far inferior opponent—they’re supposed to do that. However, an essential thing to take away from this evening’s beat down is that the Lightning has progressively looked better in each game of this winning streak.

With the resurgent Montreal Canadiens coming to town tomorrow and a massive Atlantic Division showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night, the Lightning finding their groove at the perfect time is precisely what this team needs moving forward.