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Morning After Thoughts: Lightning show life in pivotal Game Three

Tampa Bay’s best game of the series came at a great time, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

New York Rangers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning hadn’t been the Tampa Bay Lightning through the first two games of this Eastern Conference Final. They were sluggish, undisciplined, and incapable of getting out of their own way. Sure, the New York Rangers were playing well, but the Lightning was their biggest enemy in those first two games in New York—the Rangers could have brought their B or C game and still won with ease. It’s been a rare sight to witness during the past two postseasons, but it is the reality of the modern NHL; great teams like the Lightning show signs of fading after the salary cap forces a talent drain.

It’s what makes this NHL more cyclical, less prone to dynasties like the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, or Edmonton Oilers from decades past. It’s what makes Tampa Bay’s march toward a possible three-peat so tantalizing.

However, every championship run has its challenges, which must be cleared to keep the dream alive. With a 2-0 deficit in the game, and a possible 3-0 series deficit staring them in the face nearing the midway point of the second period, Tampa Bay reached into the depths of their playoff experience to rip victory from the jaws of defeat to give them some much-needed life in this series.

Who led the way for Tampa Bay? The only player to match Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky with consecutive 30+ point postseasons—Nikita Kucherov.

It was blatantly obvious Kucherov was on a mission to win this game for the Lightning from puck drop. Big hits, various controlled entries that led to sustained possession, dangerous scoring opportunities, and an unrelenting drive to keep Tampa Bay’s season alive. That’s what Kucherov brought to the Lightning in Game Three, and it echoed throughout the team.

Andrei Vasilevskiy returned to form after weak performances in Game One and Two to thwart New York’s offensive pushes, his only goals against coming on the penalty kill. Tampa Bay absolutely drowned New York in this game, dominating in 5v5 shot attempts 63-35, shots 37-20, scoring chances 29-17, high danger chances 14-5, and expected goals 3.28 to 1.51. This was a championship-caliber response that should’ve been a blowout if it hadn’t been for the spectacular play of Igor Shesterkin.

It remains to be seen if this will be another springboard for Tampa Bay, but recent history says a response like this leads to good things, and the team itself looks to finally be shaking all of the rust off from their nine-day layoff between series. To their credit, even facing a 2-0 series deficit did little to alter their confidence.

“Three or four years ago, maybe panic would have set in,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Definitely not with this group.”

If there is any team that can even the series up on Tuesday night, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning. This group won a Stanley Cup with their captain playing three minutes in 2020, a group that went through a gauntlet of an Eastern Conference in 2021, a group that doesn’t know the meaning of “quit.” If they put forth another effort like Sunday afternoon’s matinee, then the Rangers better start worrying because Sheshterkin can only hold the line at 5v5 for so long if their offense stagnates as it did in Game Three.

And if Kucherov continues to remain composed and focused, he’s the best skater on the ice by a wide margin and a game-breaker. However, the more considerable facet that needs to happen is that the Lightning, as a whole, needs to keep their game at a high level. Without Brayden Point in the lineup, the offense drives solely through Kucherov, and New York will adjust and hone in on him. Tampa Bay will need more from Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, Brandon Hagel, and Nick Paul to keep the three-peat dreams alive.

Those players have been impactful, especially Cirelli and Killorn shutting down Mika Zibanejad at 5v5, but some more offense would alleviate a lot of pressure on Tampa Bay’s top players. Depth wins at this point in the postseason; we’ve seen it be true the past two championship runs. It’s time for Tampa Bay’s depth to rise to the occasion and even the series up on Tuesday.