Tampa Bay looked nearly unstoppable at Amalie Arena
Not counting the All Star Game, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been on the road for the better part of a month.
This is common practice in hockey, as most hockey arenas are multi-purpose venues and teams need to clear out for other events for a bit. In some cases that involves a basketball team, in other cases it involves Billy Joel concerts as was the case at Amalie Arena.
On Thursday night, Tampa Bay showed off the power of home cooking as they got back on track. They didn’t just beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-2, they did so in a way that looked like the dominant team who took the NHL points lead early and held on for a long time.
For the first time since January 11, the Tampa Bay Lightning took more shots than their opponents. The final tally of 36-28 was highlighted by a 17 shot second period by Tampa Bay. The Bolts scored three times in the second, including Steven Stamkos’ 20th goal of the season care of beautiful passing from Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson. In that moment, the Lightning looked like the best team in the NHL again, as though their hiccups in January simply never happened.
It’s no surprise, really, that the Lightning are a different team when they’re at home and healthy. This being Victor Hedman’s third game back from injury, the defenseman is starting to regain his form, and the rest of the team seems to have followed suit. Hedman ended up on the score sheet in the first period when he contributed an assist on Nikita Kucherov’s 28th goal of the season. He later contributed a power play goal in the third period that slammed the door shut.
Good defense, and good defensive positioning, makes every hockey team better. Hedman’s disciplined and effective style of blue line play sets up everything else the Lightning do so well. With Hedman around, the Lightning defensemen can get more involved in the offense without fear of giving up breakaway opportunities. Hedman’s presence limits second chance opportunities for opponents, leading to periods where a team like Vancouver can spend a lot of time in their offensive zone without seeing much in the way of a real scoring chance.
Without a guy like Hedman on the blue line, the Lightning often find themselves in track meet style games. Their offensive ability puts them in a good position in those games as well, and Andrei Vasilevskiy can handle the workload, but when professional hockey players get out in space, they’re going to score their fair share of goals. This in turn can wear down a team like the Lightning, and put them on somebody else’s pace.
The positive signs at home come not a moment too soon. It’s not that the Lightning have been in some season-threatening slump, really. Even without Hedman the team was giving as much as they got, though the loss definitely slowed their pace a bit. That moderate slowdown was enough to put their division up for grabs, as the Boston Bruins have been on a tear since the calendar turned to 2018. Boston has won nine of their last ten games, and Tuukka Rask has proven every bit the difficult goaltender that he was just a couple years ago.
The Bruins and Lightning have played once, in Boston, with the Bruins controlling the pace for most of the game. Something about the way the Bruins play seemed to give the Lightning fits, at least for the first two periods. When Tampa Bay found their scoring in the third period, it was already too late for a comeback.
Seeing Boston on the rise, then, should give the Lightning some pause. Tampa Bay’s cushion atop the Atlantic division is now just three points, and the Bolts will face the Bruins three more times before the season’s over.
In a few ways, this can be a good sign. The closer the Lightning get to the Presidents Trophy, the more it becomes a talking point that previous winners have not gone on to great things in the playoffs. A big part of the reason for that is that those teams generally get to coast for much of the final stretch, which the Lightning will not have an opportunity to do thanks to the surging Bruins.
Adversity in the regular season is critical to playoff success. A team needs to know where its issues are before it’s too late to fix them, and a team needs to keep sharp throughout the season. The 82 game season has a way of lulling great teams into complacency, and to a degree it’s important that the Lightning have not been allowed to fall into that trap.
The Lightning win marks the first time Brock Boeser has lost at Amalie Arena. As a college player at North Dakota, Boeser was part of the Fighting Hawks’ tour of devastation and their 2016 National Championship victory in Tampa. As an All Star, Boeser not only won MVP but he also took the coveted shooting accuracy competition. Something about Amalie Arena really clicks with the rookie. Sure enough, Boeser scored the Canucks’ first goal of the night, a power play tally in the third period.
Boeser has been the most impressive rookie in a very strong class of them this season. The Canucks’ forward has become a goal-scoring machine, and might be the most polished product to come out of college hockey since Johnny Gaudreau.
Tampa Bay continues a mini-homestand on Saturday when they take on the Los Angeles Kings at 7:00. It will be a special night in Tampa, as Vincent Lecavalier’s number is going to be retired and the critical member of the 2004 Bolts will be honored.
The Kings are a tough opponent, currently fourth in a very crowded Pacific Division. Like they have in their still-recent championship runs, the Kings rely on solid defense and fantastic goaltending. Jonathan Quick remains one of the NHL’s finest netminders despite being in a rough stretch in his past ten games, and he’s joined by a fantastic backup in Darcy Kuemper, currently 9-1-3 with a 1.78 GAA.
Saturday night’s game will be the second leg of a back-to-back for Los Angeles. Like many teams, they will come into Tampa the night after playing in Sunrise against the Panthers. It will be a welcome change for the Lightning after having just come off an eight game road trip.