Heading into the month of February, it was completely fair to say that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s playoff chances were close to being put on life support. With just two games remaining in the month after Tuesday night’s showdown against the Edmonton Oilers, it would now be fair to say that the Lightning (27-24-8) find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference. The Bolts have a reunited Triplets line to thank in part for the recent resurgence.
Ondrej Palat scored twice, Nikita Kucherov notched a goal and three assists, and Tyler Johnson chipped in with two assists as the Lightning extended their points streak to a season-high seven games (5-0-2) with a 4-1 victory over the Oilers (32-20-8) at Amalie Arena. The win now gives the Bolts 62 points, four behind the idle Florida Panthers for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and five behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs beat the Winnipeg Jets 5-4 in OT at around the same time this game was coming to an end. Ben Bishop got the start for the Bolts and stopped 20 of 21 shots for the victory. Laurent Broissot got the rare start for the Oilers, as they gave Cam Talbot the night off. Broissot stopped 24 of the 27 shots that he faced.
Throughout the night, the Triplets dominated play, looking much like the formidable unit that powered the Bolts to a Stanley Cup Final appearance two seasons ago. Tampa Bay also did an excellent job keeping Edmonton’s Connor McDavid in check, keeping the NHL’s leading scorer off the scoresheet. The Bolts were also helped out tremendously by scoring early in every period, including goals in the opening minute of both the second and third periods. After the game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper talked about the Triplets’ performance against McDavid and how having the same lineup consistently has helped the Triplets as much as their past chemistry.
“Whether its been injuries and so many different things that have gone on in the year, we just have a different lineup every single night. But its been really nice in these past couple of weeks to have the same lineup in there,” said Cooper. “Guys are just slotting into their roles. They’ve been really good together, and sometimes they’ve gotten stale together, and now they’re back together and they’ve had a couple of fantastic games. But the big thing is who they’re doing it against. They go up against one of the best players in the world, and you’ve got a McDavid, and a (Leon) Draisatl, and Pat Maroon, that’s 60-something goals those three have this year. And to do what they did and to have success, that was really big for us.”
The Lightning raced out to a 1-0 lead thanks to Palat’s 12th goal of the season. It was a play that happened due to the stick of Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom breaking, as Kucherov collected the puck in the neutral zone and began a rush that resulted in a 2-on-1 with Palat racing up the ice to join him. Kucherov threaded a perfect pass to Palat, who converted at the 4:26 mark. About a minute later, the Lightning found themselves having to kill the only penalty of the period when Victor Hedman went off for tripping. Edmonton had some good puck movement and a couple of quality shots, but Bishop was up to the task.
Jonathan Drouin worked his usual magic with the puck and nearly produced a pair of goals, one of them late in the period. On one particular play, he took a pass in the right circle, cut to the net, stick-handled through a maze of sticks, lost the puck, got it back, and then rang one off the post from close range. McDavid was largely kept in check in the opening 20 minutes, but had a couple of chances off rushes, one that went wide and a pass on a 2-on-1 to Maroon that was broken up by Jason Garrison. Tampa Bay entered the intermission with a 12-7 shot advantage.
Palat wasted little time doubling up Tampa Bay’s lead to 2-0 only 16 seconds into the second period. Kucherov forced a turnover deep in the Oilers’ zone and worked the puck to Johnson in the right circle. Johnson then feathered a gorgeous saucer pass to Palat in front, where he one-timed it top shelf for his 13th goal of the year. Kucherov would get the secondary helper for his second assist of the night.
“It was good,” Palat said of Johnson’s pass to him for his second goal. “It was almost too good. It was a little too long in the air, but a great pass.”
Alex Killorn and Drouin found themselves on a rush together a few minutes later, but Killorn held onto the puck for a split second too long, allowing Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to break it up. The Triplets would continue to buzz when they swarmed the net following a rebound off an Anton Stralman shot, but they were unable to capitalize.
With 9:49 remaining on the clock, the Oilers broke through when Iiro Pakarinen skated through the middle of the ice and beat Bishop blocker side from the high slot to cut the Bolts’ lead to 2-1 on a shot that seemed to catch Bishop off guard. Klefbom and Adam Larsson would notch the assists. Late in the period, Drouin found himself on a break with only Larsson back, and had a chance to shoot the puck, but decided to try and cut around Larsson. Larsson was there to break up the opportunity, as the home crowd was buzzing loudly when Drouin had the puck. Tampa Bay got a power play with just over two minutes left in the period, but were unsuccessful in converting, as their best chance was a Hedman shot that rang off the post. The Bolts held a 22-16 shot advantage going into the intermission.
For the second period in a row, the Lightning found the back of the net in the opening minute when Kucherov scored his 22nd goal of the season to put the Bolts up 3-1 after just 49 seconds of play in the final period. Johnson dished the puck from his own end to Stralman, who led the rush up the ice. Stralman then dropped it for Kucherov, who took the puck on the right wing, eluded a couple of Oilers players, and skated over into the left circle, where he rifled a shot past Broissot for the goal. Just over a minute later, it appeared as though the Oilers had cut the Lightning’s lead to 3-2 when Klefbom blasted a one-timer past a screened Bishop. However, Cooper challenged the play for being offside, and replays confirmed that Leon Draisatl was offside moments before the goal, giving the Lightning a rare positive outcome in a replay challenge. Vlad Namestnikov was awarded an empty net goal with 0.7 seconds left on the clock when he was hooked on a breakaway while trying to score on an empty net.
The Lightning will return to action for the second game of a four-game homestand when they host the Calgary Flames on Thursday night. Puck drops at 7:30 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Ondrej Palat – Scored the Lightning’s first two goals, giving him 13 for the season. Finished a plus-2 with four shots on goal.
2nd Star: Nikita Kucherov – Scored a goal and added three assists for four-point night. Finished plus-4 with a game-high six shots on goal.
3rd Star: Tyler Johnson – Finished with two assists and was a plus-2.
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