The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Nashville Predators 6-2 Saturday night at Amalie Arena. For two consecutive games, the Lighting put together a strong effort resembling a team showing signs of figuring out their game as the playoffs inch closer to reality. Victor Hedman, Anthony Cirelli, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ross Colton, and Pat Maroon scored for the Lightning. Roman Josi and Alexander Carrier scored for the Predators. Brian Elliott stopped 19 of 21 shots while Juuse Saros stopped 24 of 30, and Brian Rittich stopped nine of nine.
After Thursday evening’s rout of the Maple Leafs, the Lightning maintained that momentum against a physically imposing Predators team battling for their playoff lives. Tampa Bay did just that as they outmuscled, outplayed, and out-skilled their opponent throughout the game. Importantly, Tampa Bay won this game without inflicting the baffling mistakes that have plagued them for the better part of the past month and a half.
Things started on a great foot as the Lightning went on the power-play within the first minute as Filip Forsberg sat in the box for tripping. After generating solid pressure from their normal alignment, Kucherov and Alex Killorn swapped positions, providing a wrinkle to the power-play strategy that threw Nashville a curve ball at the perfect moment. Ekholm scrambling to cover Kucherov shows how caught off guard the Predators were, and the deft pass that Kucherov makes to throw the Predators off gives Hedman all the room he needs to fire this unopposed. Small plays like this were far more prevalent the past two games and are a good sign moving forward—as long as Tampa Bay sticks to what works and doesn’t overcompensate too much.
Hedman joined Dan Boyle (2006-2007 season) as the only Lightning defensemen to score 20 goals in a season.
Tampa Bay dictated much of the opening period but didn’t put many shots on Saros. Their control came from the perimeter, where they forced the puck inwards or along the boards. What helped supplement this offensive approach, given Nashville’s defensive strategy of staying in the slot, was dangerous neutral zone pressure. Anthony Cirelli’s goal showcased how effective the Lightning was in the neutral zone this evening.
Notice how Ryan Johansen is in a no-win situation, with Nick Paul pressuring from behind and Mikhail Sergachev getting aggressive. Sergachev stepping up broke this play open; by reading Paul, he knows he can challenge Johansen and not have any defensive coverage blown. The pass to Cirelli is just icing on the cake.
Nashville’s physicality amped up after going down by two goals, eventually leading to a power-play goal after Ryan McDonagh was called for interference.
Sometimes the puck doesn’t bounce your way, and if Paul could corral this bouncing puck near the blue one, this entire sequence doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, he’s unable to, and it’s the primary reason the Lightning penalty kill is out of position on Josi’s goal.
The Lightning went right back to work after the goal, drawing another penalty and forcing Nashville to scramble. Kucherov decided to remind everyone how terrifying his shot is as a result.
The opening half of the second period was a bit rough for the Lightning. They took two consecutive penalties (both by Maroon), which provided a fair amount of pressure for the Predators. The first penalty kill saw Elliott come up with a few big saves, and the second saw Brandon Hagel generate two shorthanded chances. Unfortunately, no penalty kill can be perfect 100% of the time, and Nashville caught Sergachev not covering his man as they narrowed the deficit to one.
The Lightning came right back with some more Kucherov wizardry to regain their two-goal lead three minutes later.
The game entirely broke open within the first two minutes of the third as Colton and Maroon scored within 30 seconds of each other, ending Saros’s evening as Rittich came in as relief. Bonus points for Maroon since he scored on his birthday!
Usually, score effects begin to take hold when the trailing team scrambles to come back, but Nashville’s aggressiveness waned as regulation time ticked away. The only highlight after Maroon’s goal came from Jan Rutta fighting Nick Cousins and Rutta absolutely molly-whopping Cousins.
Overall, this was a dominant win for the Lightning and, more importantly, a crucial step forward in getting their game where it needs to be for the playoffs. Stamkos (3), Kucherov (3), and Hedman (2) all stood out this evening with multi-point games, and Elliott had another strong performance in net. As nice as it was for that to happen, the biggest thing to take away from this game was how the little things kept the Lightning ahead; no forced plays leading to turnovers, strong backchecking, good cap control, strong puck management, and no overcommitting in any particular situation.
This was arguably a more complete game than the one against Toronto, and the fact the Lightning have done it consecutively is a positive sign as the season comes to a close. Now, the question is can they do it for a third time against a dominant Florida Panthers team?