BY BROOKS ROLAND
Over the course of the last several years, it has been well-documented how much the Tampa Bay Lightning have struggled in shootouts. This season, they’ve also had trouble getting off to good starts and playing a complete game for 60 minutes. On Saturday night, two out of three wasn’t bad.
Ryan Callahan scored the lone goal in the shootout and the Lightning held on for a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild at Amalie Arena. This happened despite the fact Tampa Bay played on their heels during the third period after dominating play over the first 40 minutes. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 30 saves in his first start since December 15th, while Valtteri Filppula and Nikita Kucherov scored the goals for the Lightning. Kucherov’s goal extended his point streak to eight games, the longest by a Lightning player this season. The Lightning finished 3-2-1 on a six-game homestand that could only be described as a roller coaster ride.
The Lightning have struggled often in the opening periods of games this season, but the first 15 minutes of this opening stanza was as good a stretch of hockey as any they’ve put together this season. They came out and absolutely dominated, playing their style of hockey and dictating the flow of play. They used their speed through the neutral zone to generate several quality scoring chances, and even their lone power play saw them dominate puck possession with great puck movement while adding quality chances from Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Marchessault despite not scoring. Even when they had a defensive breakdown, such as a mistimed pinch by Victor Hedman, they were able to recover as Hedman got back in time to break up a 3-on-1 rush for Minnesota. Callahan nearly gave the Lightning a lead when he had a wide-open look at the net after taking a nice pass from Cedric Paquette, but Callahan barely missed the net. Even the Triplets looked like their old selves, as they had a few quality looks as Ondrej Palat made his return to the lineup. Tampa Bay would cash in with 9:20 left in the period when Stamkos made an outlet pass to Alex Killorn in the neutral zone. Killorn then pushed it up to Filppula, who got around a Wild defender with a gorgeous toe drag move before sniping a shot past Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk for a 1-0 lead on his fourth goal of the season. The Lightning picked up the first nine shots of the game before the Wild registered their first shot on goal with 4:59 left in the period.
Just 38 seconds later, the Wild would get their second shot on goal. Unfortunately for the Lightning, that shot ended up in the back of their net as Vasilevskiy made an egregious error, giving the puck away behind the net to Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle. Coyle took it away and backhanded it into an open net, tying the game 1-1 with 4:21 left in the period, stifling the tremendous momentum the Bolts had built up in the first 15 minutes of the period. Minnesota had a late power play that carried over into the intermission, but the Lightning were able to kill it off, as they outshot the Wild 12-4 going into the first intermission.
The Triplets would then take over in the second period, as Kucherov’s hot streak continued by giving the Lightning a 2-1 lead just 1:03 in. Palat skated down the left wing and fired a huge shot that Dubnyk turned aside, leaving a big rebound that went into the corner. Palat tracked the puck down and sent a pass into left circle that went off Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon’s stick. The puck continued to roll to Kucherov, who one-timed it with authority past Dubnyk for his 14th goal of the season. Palat and Anton Stralman would earn the assists. Tampa Bay continued to dominate play throughout the period, as Marchessault and Namestnikov had excellent chances in front of Dubnyk, but were stopped by the Minnesota netminder. Palat would create another opportunity when he forced a turnover in the neutral zone and fed a streaking Kucherov for the breakaway. Kucherov proceeded to hit the post and it remained a one-goal game. The Triplets looked like the dominating unit they had been all of last season, skating circles around the Wild’s defense. Minnesota had a few good chances for themselves late in the period, as Erik Haula ripped a big slapshot that Vasilevskiy shrugged away with his shoulder. Another late-period power play for the Wild following a Tampa Bay penalty for too many men on the ice saw them get another couple of quality shots on net, both of them by Matt Dumba, but Vasilevskiy was up to the task, including a save he made with his left pad despite being screened. The Lightning controlled both shots on goal and the number of shot attempts, outshooting Minnesota 25-15 through two periods, yet only leading 2-1. They were desperate for another goal to give them some insurance.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, they didn’t play with a lot of desperation in the third period. In fact, it was like a completely different team took the ice in the final 20 minutes. For the first eight minutes of the final period, the teams combined for one shot on goal. Minnesota kept the bulk of the play in the Lightning zone despite not generating much in the way of scoring chances early on. But with about 10 minutes left, the Wild really tilted the ice in their favor after Hedman nearly gave the Bolts a 3-1 lead, and it remained that way for the rest of regulation. Vasilevskiy was forced to come up with huge saves time and time again. A penalty on Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn nearly turned out to be costly, as Vasilevskiy was forced to slide across the crease and make a huge save with his left leg to keep the puck out on the ensuing power play. Moments later, it looked as though Minnesota had tied it up with 7:38 left on a power play goal by Zach Parise, who had tipped in a shot from the point by Ryan Suter. However, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper used his coach’s challenge, believing that Vasilevskiy had been interfered with by Parise. The officials reviewed it and agreed, reversing the call on the ice and nullifying the goal, although it was a close call that probably could’ve gone either way. The Wild continued to keep the pressure up on the same power play, and Vasilevskiy continued to come through, making a pair of saves on Matt Dumba to preserve the Lightning’s lead. But with the way the Wild continued to press and the way the Lightning continued to sit back on their heels, it was only a matter of time before Minnesota got a tying goal that counted, and Jared Spurgeon delivered. Spurgeon knocked in a rebound off a shot from Coyle, and the Wild finally tied it 2-2 with 2:39 remaining. The shots on goal in the final period were 15-3 in favor of Minnesota, a stunning reversal from the first two periods.
During the 3-on-3 OT, the Lightning had several quality chances, including one by Hedman, who made a fantastic move to get around a Wild defender and cut across the crease. He had a look at an open net with Dubnyk out of position, but Dubnyk was able to get his stick blade on the shot, keeping Minnesota in the game. Mikael Granlund had a good look on a 2-on-1, but his shot was stopped by Vasilevskiy. Hedman had another chance on a one-timer and then fed the puck to Kucherov, who put it just wide. Tyler Johnson would create another opportunity, getting the puck to Palat, who also shot the puck just wide of the net, leading to the shootout.
In the first round of the shootout, Parise and Brian Boyle were each denied. Mikko Koivu then shot it wide of the net on Minnesota’s second attempt, setting the stage for Callahan’s shootout winner, where he deked to his forehand and slid the puck past Dubnyk for the goal. Coyle had one last chance for the Wild, but his shot rang off the post, and the Lightning had a much-needed victory to complete their homestand. Tampa Bay now embarks on a four-game road trip through Western Canada and Colorado, which begins on Tuesday night in Calgary. The opening faceoff is at 9 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Overcame an incredible mistake on Minnesota’s first goal to make 30 saves, including 15 in the third period alone, allowing the Lightning to weather an incredible push from the Wild during those final 20 minutes and overtime.
2nd Star: Devan Dubnyk – Minnesota’s goalie was also outstanding, finishing with 28 saves and keeping the Wild in the game despite his team being dominated over the first two periods.
3rd Star: Ondrej Palat – It was Palat’s first game back from injury, and he didn’t miss a beat. He picked up an assist on Kucherov’s goal, but he was everywhere tonight. Creating scoring chances, forcing turnovers, and playing a very strong two-way game. Also played with a physical presence and threw a huge bodycheck in overtime that brought the crowd to its feet. Was a big reason why the Triplets looked as good as they have in quite some time.
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