Lightning Open Season With Stutter Start, Shootout Win

Tampa Bay starts 2018-19 strong on the penalty kill

How appropriate that, just hours before the season was about to begin, a thunderstorm would be brewing over downtown Tampa. The 2018-2019 NHL Season is underway in Tampa Bay as the Lightning got their campaign started on Saturday night against the rival Florida Panthers with a third period comeback to force overtime at Amalie Arena.

What was a heated and physical third period gave way to an open overtime where the Lightning were put on their heels immediately. Andrei Vasilevskiy had to make some big saves, among over 40 on the night for the Lightning netminder, to keep the game going. The three-on-three extra time went back and forth, producing fan groans and cheers alike in short order until the five minutes were up.

In the ensuing shootout, J.T. Miller got the Bolts started with a goal, albeit a slow-moving play that bounced in off of James Reimer. Mike Hoffman missed an opportunity for the Panthers, and Brayden Point was stopped by Reimer, filling in for an injured Roberto Luongo. Aleksander Barkov was stopped by Vasilevskiy, giving Nikita Kucherov the puck on his stick with the game on the line. He buried it, and the Lightning started out 1-0-0 the hard way.

Opening night was a special one for Mathieu Joseph. The right wing made his NHL debut on Saturday night, and made quite an impact on the Lightning right away. Mathieu was featured in 21 different shifts Saturday night, including being involved in the last minute of regulation and participating in overtime.

“You’ve gotta be ready for whatever happens,” said Joseph after the game. “I’ve played overtime before.” Joseph was teammates with Anthony Cirelli for much of last season, and he cited that friendship as a part of his NHL development. “[Cirelli is] a great friend off the ice. He’s such a relatable centerman, and you know, he’s playing really good defensively. It’s really easy to play with him.”

Coach Jon Cooper was filled with praise for the young wing. “Speaking of Joseph first, you can tell nerves were on him a little in the first period. Completely understandable. …Every opening night game, some teams have multiple guys playing their first game, but it’s always fun to watch that game happen.”

Early in the first period, the Lightning looked a bit hesitant, if not outright timid. Offensively, they seemed to be waiting for the perfect play to develop, and it cost them a good start. The Bolts didn’t take their first shot until over two minutes into the game, and thirteeen minutes into the game they had taken just two attempts against Roberto Luongo.

Florida broke through first in the first period at 5:58, with Jacob MacDonald converting on an opportunity to the right of Andrei Vasilevskiy on a play set up by passes from Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck.

The second period started out a bit more promising for the Lightning. Tampa Bay seemed to be gripping their sticks into sawdust still early in the period, but they controlled the puck and began to create offensive opportunities. The Lightning were playing much more aggressively in the second, leading to several scoring opportunities more juicy than anything they had been trying to set up with the perfect group of passes in the first period.

Still, rust and sloppiness remained on display as the Bolts continued to let great be the enemy of good in setting up their offense.

The third period began with an abbreviated penalty kill–perhaps the best sign of the night for the Lightning was their toughness down a man–and an exchange of penalties. The Panthers were smothering in their defense in the third, holding Tampa Bay to just one shot in the first ten minutes of the final segment.

With the Lightning looking lethargic and drawing penalties, things looked bleak. However, the penalty kill shone bright for Tampa Bay on Saturday night, killing all five Lightning penalties and scoring the team’s first goal of the season. Anthony Cirelli scored on his own rebound 10:45 into the third period, the result of hard skating and a great play where Cirelli found himself one-on-one with backup netminder James Reimer and would not go away until he scored.

The goal was really the first time since the introduction of national anthem singer Sonya Bryson that the Amalie Arena crowd was its usual self. After the goal, the crowd let out a cathartic sound.

That the Lightning were able to hang on with a listless offense through the first two periods is no small testament to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who looked to be building on a 2017-18 season where he found himself the youngest Vezina Award finalist and set a franchise record for wins in a season.

Johnson sits out

Tyler Johnson sat out the season opener on Saturday night. The Lightning forward, used in several different offensive roles in 2017-18, was held out of the game due to an upper body injury. At the beginning of such a long season, hockey teams are going to take no chances on pushing an injury early in a season that could stretch well into May.

With Johnson and Callahan both out, the Lightning really had to display their formidable depth on Saturday night against the Panthers.

Luongo leaves early

Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo left the game near the midway point of the second period. A Lightning shot earlier in the period seemed to get him around the neck, and while he stayed in the game after that he fell to the ice again shortly thereafter. The veteran, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks, was spelled for the rest of the game by James Reimer.

Penalty Kill Watch

Tampa Bay’s ability to kill off penalties will be critical in whether the Lightning are able to take the next step from contenders to champions. The PK was a sore spot for Tampa Bay in 2017-18, and improving that unit is nothing short of a must this season.

It was the second period on Saturday night where the Lightning saw their first shorthanded action, prompted by a Cory Conacher penalty. Tampa Bay was able to clog passing lanes, and able to tempt Florida into taking low-percentage shots that Vasilevskiy handled easily. That first penalty kill ended sixteen seconds early, as the Lightning were able to draw a penalty from Keith Yandle to set up the team’s first power play, which resulted in no goals but a change in the game’s energy.

Tampa Bay faced a second penalty kill late in the second period and early in the third, with a wraparound power play for Florida coming off a slashing penalty to J.T. Miller. They stymied the Panthers for the final minute of the second to get rid of the first half of the penalty, and Vasilevskiy was able to save both of Florida’s two good opportunities in the third period. This one too got cut short, but only by one second as Jonathan Huberdeau was sent off for hooking.

Early on in the third, J.T. Miller went to the box for another slash, putting Tampa Bay increasingly up against the gun. It was an abbreviated kill, with the first 29 seconds of the penalty being four-on-four hockey, but the third time around Tampa Bay showed impressive discipline and positioning on the kill.

5:53 into the third period, the Lightning were called for their fourth penalty of the night, a tripping penalty to Braydon Coburn. This time, Tampa Bay was downright suppressive on the penalty kill, smothering possession and not allowing good opportunities to the Panthers. Coming into the game, few would have predicted the Lightning’s penalty kill to be their best feature on the night, but that’s exactly how it turned out.

A fifth penalty for the Lightning came just past the halfway point of the third period when Cedric Paquette was sent to the box for two minutes. That was when Cirelli broke through and got the Lightning their first goal of the season, a shorthanded effort with effort the operative word. Tampa Bay wound up 5-for-5 on killing penalties Saturday night with a shorthanded goal. Not the best of openers for the Lightning in general, but they showed some improvement in one of their team’s biggest weaknesses from last season.

Up next for Bolts:

Tampa Bay stays at home next week, with their next game coming on Thursday the 11th at Amalie Arena against the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks are still a team in transition, but with a healthy Brock Boeser they will be a force to be reckoned with on any given night.

Boeser has a real knack for scoring in Amalie Arena. He was fantastic in Vancouver’s one visit to Tampa last season, part of a Canucks upset, and of course he was a breakout star in the 2016 Frozen Four in Tampa as a member of the victorious North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

Faceoff is scheduled for 7:30 on Thursday night.

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.