Leading the NHL after the Christmas break comes with its fair share of expectations. The Tampa Bay Lightning hit the ice Thursday in Los Angeles having just received unanimous first place honours in the NHL’s Super 16 power rankings for the fourth straight week.
Tampa Bay was well rested, having had the previous two days off, riding their sixth straight win over the Anaheim Ducks New Years Eve. Playing the near last-place Kings could have been seen as a trap game of sorts, as LA has struggled mightily both producing offense, and keeping the puck out of the back of their net. Yet, all season long, the Lightning have exceeded expectations and won hockey games in every single scenario. They made it clear from the opening moments that tonight was to be in dominant fashion.
A Chink in the Armour
The Kings started off the night decently, opening up with a dangerous Anze Kopitar chance in the first few seconds. Throughout the next couple minutes, the Kings skated with Tampa Bay well, but a Brendan Leipsic high stick on Braydon Coburn-a double minor-gave the Lightning the first power play opportunity on a night that would become a disaster for LA.
An Absolute Clinic
There’s hardly another way to describe a Lightning power play that gave them a stranglehold on the first period, and a 2-0 lead. Leipsic’s penalty came just over five minutes in, and only 40 seconds later, a Dustin Brown hook handed the Bolts a 5-on-3 powerplay for a full two minutes.
This was a magnificent display of puck movement from Tampa Bay. They were able to compress the Kings’ box, and create a ton of lateral puck movement, the perfect attack against an aggressive goaltender like Jonathan Quick. The man-up unit was whipping passes around the LA PK unit, and Steven Stamkos got Quick to bite on a fake slap-shot from the left circle. He slid it cross-ice to Nikita Kucherov, who buried it to open the scoring. The goal was Kucherov’s 400th career point, and fourth tally in as many games against the Kings.
Cashing in Twice
Tampa Bay’s power play continued to wreak havoc in the latter-half. More fantastic cycling, and Stamkos replicated his earlier setup with a very similar apple on a Brayden Point goal to make it 2-0, this time freezing Quick in the middle of the ice before dishing. Point took a perfect shot from a tight angle, going top right for a second 5-on-3 goal.
This succession of chances and zone time allowed the Bolts to seize momentum completely. Once they got their feet under them, Tampa Bay’s speed began to torment Los Angeles and lead to turnovers. Ryan Callahan capitalized on one when Jake Muzzin coughed it up for a breakaway. Callahan raced in alone and made a slick dangle to extend the lead to 3-0 within the last five minutes of the first.
Tampa Bay only gained more momentum when Ryan McDonagh annihilated a puck over the shoulder of Quick just twenty 25 seconds into the middle frame to make it 4-0.
Fending off a Surge
In the brief moments where the Kings began to create some energy of their own, the Bolts responded extremely well. Though LA’s first power play attempt didn’t dismantle the Lightning quite to the degree Tampa Bay’s did a number on the Kings, or score a goal for that matter, it gave them some life. This was exemplified just six minutes after a Mikhail Sergachev cross-check, when Austin Wagner showcased a burst of speed after stripping McDonagh at the right point. Wagner burst in alone and beat Andrei Vasilevskiy to get the Kings on the board at 12:05.
Tampa Bay, however, held things in check and continued to play their game. Though the goal ignited the Kings slightly, the Bolts did a great job limiting chances to the perimeter. Aside from a missed empty net by Leipsic at 6:05, they weathered the storm magnificently.
Commanding Power Play
Entering their fourth opportunity on the man-advantage of the night, both Stamkos, the creator of both of the early 5-on-3 strikes, and the Lightning power play unit were having a night. Stamkos beat Quick, but not the iron, but rarely misses on a second chance. His rocket one-timer while falling down in the dwindling minutes of the second was no different. Tampa Bay’s power play had three goals, Stamkos and Kucherov each three points, and the Bolts a whopping 5-1 lead after two.
Pedal to the Metal
In a not-so-unfamiliar scenario, the Lightning entered the final period up a handful of goals. As Philadelphia’s two incredible third period comebacks have illustrated, the Bolts are best suited to protect a lead by sticking to their guns and firing away offensively.
The third period was arguably the best for both teams. Though the Lightning scored three in the first, their stout defensive performance in the final stanza was impressive, especially considering they killed three penalties. That being said, they were outshot 16-6. When the Bolts were able to play 5-on-5 in the third, the clock melted away as they continued to put on pressure offensively. Mathieu Joseph blazed past Drew Doughty at the midway point of the frame, won the puck and slipped one over Quick. An incredible individual effort to give Tampa Bay more breathing room.
Though the penalty troubles were there, so were the kills, for the most part. Doughty beat Vasilevskiy with less than four to play, but the Lightning prevailed 6-2 in what was possibly their most complete, dominant performance of the season.
The Lightning picked up points in their 16th straight game. They now need to do so in two more consecutive contests to tie, and three to beat the franchise-long 18 game point streak.
Our Three Stars of the Game
1st Star- Steven Stamkos- 1 goal, 2 assists- Stamkos was an absolute force on the power play, essentially responsible for three goals.
2nd Star- Nikita Kucherov- 1 goal, 3 assists- Kucherov’s incredible vision of the ice was on full display. He made some very nifty passes to go along with four points.
3rd Star- Brayden Point- 1 goal, 1 assist- Another productive night for Point, thanks to his involvement in a great game for the power play, and excellent work at even strength.
The Lightning will look to complete the three game California sweep Saturday in San Jose. Puck drops at 11PM ET.
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