Lightning: Welcome to Playoff Hockey

For the most part, the Lightning showed their potential in game 1

There is nothing in any sport, or really any form of entertainment at all, quite like playoff hockey. It is a wonderful, thrilling, draining, exhausting, and relentless experience for the fan. Just imagine what it must do to the players. It’ll put hair on their faces, that’s for sure.

Get out to a lead, and a crowd that roars in the regular season rocks the foundation in the postseason. Lose that lead, and a nervousness sets in that most sports can’t even pretend to match.

It was a sellout crowd at Amalie Arena, but more than that it was a capacity crowd. After a disappointing, injury-plagued 2016-17 season where the Bolts missed the playoffs, both the team and the fans were hungry for some playoff hockey. They got a glimpse of what could be on Thursday night, as the Lightning won 5-2 with moments of brilliance.

The Lightning came out of the tunnel energized in a big way. They hit hard, they fought for position on offense and defense, and they collected scoring opportunities in bulk in the opening minutes of the contest.

Ondrej Palat got the scoring started at 15:00 into the first period. After the Lightning had threatened in front of the Devils’ net repeatedly throughout the early part of the game, Palat got a centering pass on his stick and went to the backhand to stick the puck past Keith Kinkaid to put the Lightning ahead and send Amalie Arena into an utter frenzy.

The first period turned out nearly even in terms of shots, and the Devils had at least one very strong scoring chance, but for the most part the first period belonged to Tampa Bay. They did the two things they need to do to in order to keep the Devils at bay: They took away the center of the ice when the Devils were on offense, preventing New Jersey from their dangerous redirects in front of net. They also put their forwards in the center of their own offensive zone, which they struggled to do in the two teams’ three regular season meetings.

Topping matters off, the Lightning had their forecheck going strong. The Devils struggle at times with aggressive opponents, and the Lightning made them pay late in the first period with a goal from Tyler Johnson care of a strong forecheck that was able to center the puck to him.

The second period was more of the same solid play from the Lightning. They were able to draw a penalty just five seconds in, leading to a goal from Yanni Gourde when he got the puck with Keith Kinkaid’s back turned to him. After three opportunities in the first period where the puck bounced over his stick, he was able to easily slip the biscuit past Kinkaid for the Lightning’s third goal of the game.

Tampa Bay gave a goal back in the later part of the second period when they fell into one of their worse habits: An ambitious long pass in their own zone that led to a turnover. In this case it was less a turnover and more a perfect centering feed to Devils star Taylor Hall, who ripped it right past Andrei Vasilevskiy to make the score 3-1.

For the rest of the second period, New Jersey was in control. The Lightning have a habit, in good times and in bad ones, of letting the opponent hold possession for prolonged times. The Devils were able to circle the net and threaten for about the final ten minutes of the second period,

In the third, the Lightning seemed to concentrate on holding their lead and taking the first game of the series that way. It became much more difficult when a J.T. Miller penalty led to a Devils power play goal in a matter of seconds. Suddenly, the Devils were only down a goal midway through the third period with momentum, a quieting Tampa crowd, and a Lightning team that had fallen off from the strong first thirty minutes of the game.

With the lead starting to slip away and the crowd starting to get that playoff hockey nervousness, Alex Killorn got the puck on his stick with some room to skate. He took a shot over Kinkaid’s shoulder and into the net for the 4-2 lead with under eight minutes remaining. The ensuing roar was the loudest sigh of relief I have ever heard. Just like that, the crowd was awake and ready for the rest of the game.

The Devils never seriously threatened after that. Tampa Bay held the puck for most of the final minutes, causing New Jersey to have to hold Kinkaid in net longer than they wanted. When they finally pulled the goalie, Nikita Kucherov sent home the final goal of the night and sent the crowd home jubilant.

The series will continue Saturday afternoon at 3:00, the kind of afternoon matinee that has become a mainstay in early round playoff hockey. Their first matinee of the season, early in March against Philadelphia, was a regular season classic the Bolts won 7-6 in a shootout in front of a delirious Amalie Arena crowd.

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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.