For a Period, the Lightning Looked Like Champions Again

For twenty in-game minutes, Tampa Bay played nearly perfect hockey

Since February, Tampa Bay Lightning fans have wondered if the Bolts could recapture the explosiveness and all around great hockey that defined the first few months of their season. They answered that question with an emphatic yes on Saturday afternoon, lighting the lamp repeatedly in the second period en route to a win over the New Jersey Devils in game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

In that second, it seemed that the Lightning were scoring from anywhere they wanted. They got goals on redirects, on the power play, and as a result of a misplay on the part of the New Jersey Devils. They forced New Jersey into a tough position from an early point in the game, never really letting up. Tampa Bay played well even-handed, with a man advantage, and shorthanded. They chased starting netminder Keith Kinkaid, put New Jersey on their heels, and showed their true championship potential in a convincing 5-3 victory.

There was a bit of a hiccup at the end of the third, with the Lightning ceding shots and a late charge to the Devils. The Lightning lost both Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi for that final stretch, leaving them a forward and defenseman short. There was no clarity by the end of the night on whether either of them would be out for any period of time. While the Devils looked much more competitive at the end of the game, they did not seriously threaten to knot the score.

The Lightning started the scoring 12:15 into the first period when Brayden Point found himself with nobody between him and Keith Kinkaid. He didn’t fake, he didn’t look for a pass, he simply went toward Kinkaid’s glove side and blew the puck right past him. It was Point’s first career playoff goal. Later in the first, the Devils evened matters when the Lightning failed to clear the zone after collecting a rebound from Andrei Vasilevskiy, leading to a Nico Hirschier goal.

In the second period, the Lightning were nothing short of relentless. In addition to controlling the puck and the pace of the action for the bulk of the frame, the Lightning were able to find seams in the New Jersey defensive setup. Tampa Bay broke it open in the second. Alex Killorn broke the tie with a redirect on a centering pass from Nikita Kucherov. He got another later in the period, collecting a rebound in front of the net with Kinkaid’s back turned to him. Tyler Johnson added a goal, also a redirect in front of Keith Kinkaid off a shot from Ryan McDonagh.

The most bizarre goal of the second was a Devils own-goal when a pass from Nikita Kucherov was challenged poorly by Sami Vatanen. Vatanen essentially deflected the puck into the net. There is no own goal stat for hockey like there is in soccer, so the goal was attributed to Kucherov.

The four goal period was a display of exactly what the Lightning are capable of offensively. Scoring came from everywhere, with just about every line threatening the Devils’ net throughout the twenty minutes. They performed well in every aspect of the game, limiting the Devils’ shots, finding quality opportunities of their own, scoring twice on the power play and putting together one of the best penalty kills they’ve had all season.

The Devils were able to get a goal back before the end of the period. It was Sami Vatanen, he of the own goal, who was able to get one past Vasilevskiy in the final minute of the second to make the score 5-2.

Sometimes, offense is the best defense in hockey. The Lightning demonstrated that in the first ten minutes of the third by holding the puck in the offensive zone and continuing to take shots on Cory Schneider, New Jersey’s backup who replaced Kinkaid in the second period.

Midway through the period, New Jersey managed to claw back into the game a bit with a Blake Coleman slapshot rocket of a goal. Suddenly, it seemed as though the game might rest with Tampa Bay’s defensive unit.

It is important to note that New Jersey did not get closer than 5-3, but for the final ten minutes of the hockey game it was the Devils who seemed to be in control. At bare minimum, that finish showed that the Lightning could let a game or two slip away in this series. The solid Devils’ performance gives them something to build on as they turn home for game three.

For the most part, the team was not bothered by the slow finish. Postgame conversation centered on how the one and only goal of a playoff game is to get the win, at least among the players. Coach Jon Cooper seemed considerably more concerned, but he was also quick to credit the Devils for their late game play.

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 41 saves on the afternoon, most of them straightforward.  It was the kind of solid but quiet performance that puts a good team in a position to win a playoff game against a frantic opponent.  New Jersey played hungry and at times desperate hockey in the third period, winning a lot of chances and firing the puck on net as often as possible, but many of the shots turned into routine saves.  It speaks to Vasilevskiy’s talent that he can have a game of over 40 saves and it seems almost normal.

The good: The four-goal second period is a perfect showing of exactly what the Lightning look like when their game is clicking. Relentless, fast-paced hockey with five skaters constantly looking for a shot on net. The best way to win in any sport is to play “your game.” The Lightning did that.

The bad: The Devils managed a lot of shots in this one. The Lightning tried to keep the puck away in the third period, but New Jersey still unloaded the puck many times on Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The series will shift to the Prudential Center in Newark on Monday, with the Devils backing up and about to put those backs against a wall. For this series to go longer than four or five games, the Devils are going to need to show something special in Newark.

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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.