Less than 24 hours after suffering a tough 3-0 setback to the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning found themselves in desperate need of two points as the Edmonton Oilers arrived in town for a late-afternoon contest at Amalie Arena. With their penalty killing and defensive play receiving plenty of criticism recently and the word “negativity” being used by captain Steven Stamkos after the Boston loss, the Lightning needed a win in the worst way.
Sometimes in hockey, a back-to-back situation can be a good one, and it turned out that way for the Lightning (49-19-4, 102 points), as they held off the Oilers (31-36-5, 67 points) by a 3-1 score on home ice. Nikita Kucherov scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner, while Louis Domingue won a battle of backup goaltenders against Al Montoya, making 29 saves, 14 of them in the third period. Both teams were playing the second half of back-to-back games, as Edmonton was coming off a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers and had won four of its last six. The win pushed the Lightning’s lead over Boston for first place in the Atlantic Division back to four points with 10 games remaining, although the Bruins still have two games in hand.
Tampa Bay’s penalty killing unit, which was 26th in the NHL at 76.3% entering this game, killed off all five Oilers power plays, including a 5-on-3 in the later stages of the third period. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was complimentary of both his team’s efforts in front of Domingue as well as his goaltender.
“The first couple was just outstanding work by the guys in front of the goaltender and the last couple, Louis was the difference,” said Cooper. “(Ryan) McDonagh stopped one, guys were sacrificing their bodies.”
The day before, a tough first period doomed the Bolts. Against the Oilers, they got off to a rocky start very early on before settling down.
With only 14 seconds having ticked off the clock after the opening faceoff, Ty Rattie capitalized on Domingue’s puck-handling mistake behind the net. While the Bolts’ netminder scrambled to get back into the crease, Rattie banked it off him and into the net for a 1-0 Oilers lead. Tampa Bay reset themselves by turning up the pressure over the next few minutes, even drawing an early power play. However, the Bolts’ power play unit failed to show up, giving up a shorthanded breakaway chance to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that Domingue turned aside.
Both teams spent the middle portion of the period trading shots and solid chances at each others’ nets. However, a second power play for the Lightning also looked disastrous, as Drake Caggiula barely missed the net on a shorthanded 2-on-1. That missed opportunity for Edmonton set the stage for the Lightning to tie the game moments later.
Following a faceoff win by Brayden Point, the puck slid back to Victor Hedman at the blue line. Hedman let one rip, where it bounced off the stick of Rattie and flew past Montoya, hitting the far post and going in. The goal tied the game 1-1 with 4:48 left, giving Hedman his 12th of the year, waking up both the crowd and the Lightning. The Bolts held a 16-8 shot edge after one period, but Edmonton missed a golden opportunity late when Ryan Strome missed an open net on a 2-on-1 after a Milan Lucic shot created a rebound.
After a dreadful first period, the Lightning’s power play rebounded in a big way just 2:24 into the second.
Following an unsuccessful 2-on-2 shorthanded rush by the Oilers, the Lightning took it the other way. Stamkos ended up with the puck behind the Edmonton net and fed it in front to Kucherov. Kucherov promptly wristed a laser beam top shelf past Montoya for his 35th goal, putting Tampa Bay up 2-1.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) March 18, 2018
After not being tested during the first 20 minutes, the Lightning’s penalty killing unit faced a couple of tests during a pair of Edmonton power plays. Unlike recent contests, the Bolts’ PK unit was up to the task, even getting a shorthanded chance by Point that rang off the post. The Lightning spent much of the period controlling the majority of the shot attempts and keeping the Oilers bottled up, holding a 30-16 lead in shots on goal at the second intermission.
While the Lightning’s penalty killers were up to the task early on, Domingue showed that your goalie is often your best penalty killer.
At the 5:56 mark of the third period, Yanni Gourde went to the box for cross checking, and the Oilers set up a shooting gallery in front of Domingue. He made multiple fantastic saves, including one on Leon Draisaitl and two on Nugent-Hopkins. Ryan McDonagh also made a huge kick save, the one Cooper mentioned earlier, that kept it a one-goal game. Edmonton didn’t generate a ton of chances at even strength, needing the power play to try to find an offensive spark, as the Connor McDavid line was shut down by Point’s line all night.
Kucherov extended the Lightning’s lead to 3-1 when he capped off a wild sequence in the Edmonton zone for his 36th of the season. He began by forechecking and creating a turnover while Montoya was outside of his crease, sliding the puck over to J.T. Miller. Miller promptly missed a wide open net, with Stamkos also failing to hit the back of an open net as well. However, Kucherov then grabbed the puck and slid a backhander past Montoya at the 11:34 mark.
The Oilers needed another power play to generate some more offensive chances, and it was buoyed by a 5-on-3 that lasted 28 seconds. However, Domingue came up big again and the Lightning came away with a huge win on home ice.
The Bolts return to action for the final game of their eight-game homestand when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:30 pm.
-At the time of this writing, the Lightning needed a regulation victory by the Anaheim Ducks over the New Jersey Devils in order to clinch a playoff spot.
**UPDATE** With the Ducks’ 4-2 victory over the Devils late Sunday night, the Lightning became the second team in the NHL and first in the Eastern Conference to clinch a playoff spot.
-The Lightning put 40 shots on net, the fourth time in 5 games they’ve out-shot the opposition after being out-shot in four straight games prior to that.
-Lightning winger Ryan Callahan played his 700th career NHL game and 250th with the Lightning.
-Kucherov’s two goals gives him 93 points on the season, the most in the NHL. He now leads both McDavid and Evgeni Malkin by four points in the race for the Art Ross Trophy.
-McDavid ended the night with no points and four shots on goal. He scored four goals against the Lightning in the teams’ previous meeting on February 5, a 6-2 Oilers win.
-Since being acquired at the trade deadline, Miller has notched 10 points (five goals, five assists) in nine games with the Lightning.
Our Three Stars of the Game
1st Star: Nikita Kucherov – Scored a pair of goals, his 35th and 36th, while also increasing his point total to an NHL-best 93.
2nd Star: Louis Domingue – Finished with 29 saves, 14 of them in the final period.
3rd Star: Steven Stamkos – Notched a pair of primary assists on both of Kucherov’s goals.
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