Top Line, Vasilevskiy Carry Lightning to Victory

Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman all over the score sheet

Steven Stamkos had two goals, Nikita Kucherov added four points to his NHL leading total, and Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 38 shots as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Detroit Red Wings 4-1 on Thursday night at Amalie Arena.

Early in the first period, the Lightning reminded the Amalie Arena crowd why they have the most points of any team in hockey. Just 3:57 into the game, beautiful passing by Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman set up a textbook Steven Stamkos goal to put the Lightning ahead. 7:05 into the game, Nikita Kucherov scored a goal of his own off a slick pass from Vladislav Namestnikov. That 2-0 score held through the end of the first period, but that’s largely thanks to the work of Andrei Vasilevskiy.

After the Lightning’s second goal, they largely conceded possession to the Red Wings, who were not shy to pepper Vasilevskiy with shots. At one point in the first, the Lightning had eight shots to Detroit’s two. By the end of the first, the Red Wings led 17-12 in shots taken. Minutes eleven through twenty of the first period were mostly spent in the Lightning’s own zone.

Tampa Bay settled down to some degree in the second period, outshooting Detroit 13-11. Perhaps more importantly, they controlled the pace of the action in a way they’ve struggled to do in recent weeks. The Lightning were able to possess the puck for prolonged amounts of time, giving Vasilevskiy some rest and keeping the Red Wings at arm’s length.

Simply put, in the second period the Lightning played like they knew they were the better hockey team; something that had been lacking in their road losses on Monday and Tuesday night. They still allowed Detroit to have some chances, but the quality of those opportunities was not quite what it was in the first, giving Andrei Vasilevskiy the help he needed to keep the Lightning in control.

From coach Jon Cooper after the game: “You can look at the number, and say oh well he had 37 (saves) or whatever it was, but for the most part they were all outside, our goalie could see them. It wasn’t the grade As. You can give up shots and that, but it’s the type we gave up, and a lot of them were harmless.” There is a tremendous difference between a shot on goal and a really good opportunity. While the Lightning could not limit the former, they handled the latter.

Besides Vasilevskiy, the biggest constant of the night was the passing of Nikita Kucherov. The NHL’s scoring leader had three assists and a goal on the night. The assists were things of beauty, touch passes that found skaters wide open in front of the net. His passing even helped set up his own goal, as he and Vladislav Namestnikov traded passes on a 2-on-1 rush that turned into the Lightning’s second tally of the night.

When asked about Kucherov’s performance, Cooper said “he’s a really intelligent player. … The play he made just to set up the fourth goal was, not a lot of guys can do that and think that and put them in that position, but I just liked his shot mentality tonight and (it was) probably a big reason why he had the night he had.”

Kucherov’s best assist likely came in the third period. Coming up on the right crossbar against Jimmy Howard, the Lightning winger skated right up to the edge of the crease before dumping it off to nearby Alex Killorn, for whom Howard was not at all prepared. The goal made the score 4-1 and gave the Lightning as well as their fans an opportunity to breathe.

The Lightning demonstrated in the third period that sometimes the best defense is puck possession. Most of the third period was spent in front of Jimmy Howard, severely limiting Detroit’s chances at getting back in the game. Until and unless they find a defenseman at the trade deadline, this is the kind of strategy the Lightning need to employ to hold leads and to keep the opponents guessing.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates with center Vladislav Namestnikov (90) and left wing Alex Killorn (17) after scoring against the Detroit Red Wings during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Lightning will stay at home over the weekend, as they face the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night at 7:30. Rookie defensemen will be on center stage, as Mikhail Sergachev and New Jersey’s Will Butcher are tied for the league lead in points by rookie defensemen. With the Devils on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff race, New Jersey should provide a much tougher test for the Lightning than the Red Wings on Thursday night.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.