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Playoff Preparation Begins in Earnest for Lightning

Scrum Sports phot by Wayne Masut

Back home after their three game road trip, the Tampa Bay Lightning took on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. The Amalie Arena faithful will greet their playoff bound team. This marks the seventh straight postseason for the Lightning. This is a franchise record. It is fair to say that playoff preparation starts now. Sure, the Blue Jackets are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference but they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Players on a team that is just playing out the string knowing they are not heading to the postseason can carry a chip. That chip could make the difference in a game against a team heading for the postseason. 

The good news for the Lightning is the return of Tanner Jeannot and Anthony Cirelli to the lineup. As usual, Andrei Vasilevskiy is in net for the good guys. The captain for Columbus, Boone Jenner is out as he tends to a family situation. Heartfelt thoughts go out to him and his wife. In net for the visitors is Jet Greaves. Jenner is the leading goal scorer for the Blue Jackets but this team is still rolling out Johnny Gaudreau. I believe we’re in store for a competitive game.

Opening Salvo

The speed of this game was a bit surprising. For the first half of the opening period, all lines for both teams were pounding the ice. Neither team had much to show for all that effort. Through half a period, both teams only registered 4 shots on goal – two apiece. 

The second half of the period maintained the speedy form of the first half. There was more extended offensive zone time for both teams. Columbus hit a couple of posts and the Lightning were cycling in Columbus’ zone. 

Eventually, with a little less than four minutes left in the period the Lightning opened the scoring. League leader in points, Nikita Kucherov did a spin-o-rama assist and hit Brayden Point in stride. Point knew what to do and in the blink of an eye, the lamp was lit. Columbus answered a couple minutes later. Kirill Marchenko skated to the slot and snapped the puck past Vasilevskiy to tie the game at one. Actually Vasilveskiy stopped a good portion of the puck but it fluttered over his shoulder and into the net.

Underestimate at Your Own Peril

As the teams took the ice for the second period, one thing was certain. Earning the win was going to be tough. To their credit, the Blue Jackets were not playing like cellar dwellers. Conversely, the Lightning seemed to be chasing the game looking like a team still chasing the postseason. This game should have been playoff preparation for Tampa but it seemed anything but. 

Just past the seven minute mark, Marchenko scored his second goal of the game. This goal looked like a carbon copy of his first goal. He skated right past two or three defenders into the slot. Then he rifled the puck past Vasilevskiy. Columbus now up 2 – 1 in the game.

The Lightning got their first power play with seven minutes left in the period. They did not waste the opportunity. Kucherov with his second assist found space and Steven Stamkos’ stick on a cross ice pass. Stamkos fell on one knee and smacked the puck past Greaves to tie the game at two. This is the sixth straight game that Stamkos has scored a goal. That’s how the period ended in a 2 – 2 tie. 

Playoff Preparation Demands Proper Intensity Levels

Besides keeping the puck away from Marchenko, the Lightning need to get the next goal. With the home crowd, in the final regulation period, a Tampa goal could be the knockout punch needed. The longer the Lightning allow Columbus to hang around, the harder it will be to shake them off. Just past the five minute mark, the Lightning took action to separate the men from the boys. I should say the contenders from the pretenders. In the span of 16 seconds, the home team scored two goals. 

First, Cirelli banged in a rebound of a Bandon Hagel shot to make it 3-2, Lightning. 

Playoff Preparation For This Game Achieved

On the ensuing faceoff, the Lightning went back on the attack and it paid off. Stamkos blasted his second goal of the game from the high slot. Lightning now enjoying a comfortable 4 -2 lead. For Stamkos, he now has two goals in the last three games. Players on fire around the league wish they were as hot as Stamkos.

No doubt that the two quick Tampa goals took the win out of the Blue Jackets sails. Try as they might, they didn’t have the horses. They made a valiant effort but it fell short against the better team. 

Columbus pulled Greaves from the net with just under three minutes remaining. About a minute later, after a faceoff battle, Kucherov won the puck. He banged the puck up ice and Stamkos put on the jets to get that puck. Stamkos then got the empty net hat trick. Kucherov earned his third assist of the game. Game ended with a 5 – 2 Lightning win. 

Three Stars

  1. Steven Stamkos – 3 Goals, 1 assist. Six straight games with a goal. Three straight games with at least two goals. 
  2. Nikita Kucherov – 3 assists pushing his season point total to a league leading 136 points
  3. Andrei Vasilevskiy – 31 saves on 33 shots for a save percentage of 93.9%. He is now 9-2-1 in his last 12 games. 

What’s Next

Playoff preparation continues as the lowly Ottawa Senators come to Amalie on Thursday night. The puck drops at 7:00 pm.

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