The Lightning defensemen carried the team to victory
Andrei Vasilevskiy had 31 saves, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos continued their points streaks, and the Tampa Bay Lightning defense set the tone in a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes came out strong in the first period, controlling the action for the most part and holding the puck in their offensive zone. Two holding penalties to the Lightning in the first didn’t help matters, but both penalties were easily handled. It was a good early sign for Tampa Bay’s blueliners, who haven’t been tested all that much during the Bolts’ frantic early season. They were up to the task, letting Carolina hold the puck but not giving them much to shoot at.
It was Tyler Johnson who opened the scoring. Tampa Bay’s first power play, also care of a holding penalty, gave them possession and opportunities. First, Yanni Gourde had a shot on a wide open net but hit the post. Just seconds later, Johnson fired his fourth goal of the season home to give the Lightning the first period lead.
The second period spent a lot of time in the neutral zone, as two disciplined hockey teams felt each other out. That turned out to be a problem for Carolina, as Tampa Bay has quick strike abilities from the neutral zone. A breakaway around the midway point of the period led to a rebound, which led to a Stamkos shot, another rebound, and a goal for Mikhail Sergachev. It was the third straight game in which Sergachev scored a goal, dating back to his career first last week against Columbus.
Expect good looks from defensemen when Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are out on the ice. Their line is so talented, and currently so good at lighting the lamp, that teams are bound to focus more and more on those two players, creating opportunities for everyone else. Sergachev has taken advantage in a big way, proving the rookie defenseman isn’t just a weapon on the blue line but the rare true two-way defenseman.
The first two periods were largely a coach’s dream. While the Lightning took four penalties across the first two, they showed a lot of excellent defense and reduced the number of clean Carolina shots as much as possible. In front of a goalie as talented as Andrei Vasilevskiy, that’s a recipe for success. The Lightning finished the second period ahead 2-0 in a game that may have looked even on the stat sheet, but was nothing of the sort on the ice.
The Hurricanes played tough hockey, and proved that their very early 3-1-1 record might be a little more than just early results. They fight hard to get to the puck and do not allow players to separate from their defensemen. Even for an undermatched team like Carolina, that’s a way to keep games close. The Lightning had to work for everything that got on Tuesday night, from possession to shots to goals.
What’s more, Carolina is a master of an underrated art in sports: The art of not taking penalties. The Hurricanes don’t put opponents on the power play very often, and they’ve demonstrated an uncanny ability to draw penalties from opponents. The Lightning had to kill three penalties, dealt with a four on four situation in the second period, and only got to take one power play in the first two periods. To beat a team like the Hurricanes requires attention to detail.
The problem with allowing a lot of possession is that teams get to take a lot of shots on your net. The Lightning learned that the hard way in the third period. After an almost immediate penalty and a successful penalty kill, again Tampa Bay found themselves playing defense. This allowed the Hurricanes to break through and cut the Bolts’ lead in half with over ten minutes to play in regulation.
The problem with being a shoot-first team that can strike from a play out of the neutral zone is that Tampa Bay sometimes struggles to hold onto the puck, even in situations that call for it. With a one goal lead for much of the third period, the Lightning were playing defense with little rest to clear the puck. That kind of play requires defensive attentiveness, and can really wear on a team over the course of a long season. Look for the Lightning to concentrate more on possession and pressure in the offensive zone.
While Carolina threatened late, an empty net goal by Vladislav Namestikov put the Lightning back up two goals and all but sealed the win. Ryan Callahan added another goalie-free tally to extend the lead to 4-1 and put the game away. Nikita Kucherov added another goal with just four seconds to go, and the Lightning took a 5-1 win.
The Lightning have the best record in hockey through their first ten games, winning eight and only having one game all year where they failed to come away with at least one point. Hockey season may be extremely long in nature, but a start like that is the kind of thing that has fans thinking of some spring hardware.
On Thursday night, the Lightning come home to Amalie Arena to take on the Detroit Red Wings. Tampa Bay defeated Detroit at Little Caesar’s Arena 3-2 in their previous meeting this season. The Red Wings may have a championship level reputation, but this year’s edition is not expected to be much of anything and they’ve cooled after a promising first few games.