Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

The NHL playoffs are back. From the looks of Game 1, so is the Lightning

TAMPA — Well, how did you like that, Tampa Bay?

The Stanley Cup playoffs returned to town Thursday night after a year's hiatus and it was just like they never left.

You remember what it was like. The fun, the thrills, the chills, the anxiety, the buzz, the electricity — the kind only generated by the playoffs.

The Rally Rackets rattled the roof. Sonya Bryson delivered goose bumps with the national anthem. Chants of "Let's Go Lightning'' shook the walls.

These are the sights and sounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs and they were on full display. Just like they were three years ago when the Lightning almost won the whole thing. Just like two years ago when the Lightning came within a couple of goals of going back to the final.

It was a familiar scene.

Know who else showed up? The Tampa Bay Lightning.

RELATED: Photo gallery from Thursday's playoff opener

The same Lightning that bulldozed through the NHL the first three months of the season. Pretty much the same Lightning that has made postseason hockey something special in these parts.

And the same Lightning that, for one game anyway, has you thinking that there once again might be something special brewing.

Now let's repeat and emphasize this: it was just one game. Just one. The playoffs are full of teams that look good one game and are playing golf a few days later. And we're still not quite sure just how good the opponent, the New Jersey Devils, is.

But what a one game it was.

Playing against a team that beat it three times in three regular-season games, the Lightning responded with a 5-2 victory that was never really in doubt except for a few anxious minutes in the third period.

Was it a perfect game by Tampa Bay? No, not perfect. It's not ideal to jump out to a 3-0 lead and then start chewing nails when your opponent cuts that lead to 3-2 early in the third period.

Then again, this is how the playoffs work. No games are perfect. No victories are easy. Any win by any score by any means is a thing of beauty.

"There's going to be waves; there's going to be speed bumps,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's how you weather them. … I like a lot of what we did tonight.''

He should. There was a lot to like.

Like Tyler Johnson ducking into a phone booth and putting on his cape, the way he always does when the postseason arrives. He had a goal and an assist.

Like veteran Ondrej Palat, who missed a chunk of the season with an injury, showing just how valuable he is, picking up three points, including the game's first goal 15 minutes into the first period.

Like the kid, Yanni Gourde, who was playing in his first NHL playoff game, yet looked like he was the most grizzled playoff veteran on the ice. He should've scored like six goals Thursday, but had to settle for one to go along with an assist. He was, easily, the best player on the ice.

Like defenseman Victor Hedman, who seemingly never left the ice and was dominant force all night, finishing with a plus-2.

Like Alex Killorn, who continued his knack of scoring critical postseason goals when he iced the game by making it 4-2 with 7:46 left in the third period.

Like goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who turned away 29 New Jersey shots.

Notice who hasn't been mentioned? Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

It's not that the Lightning's two leading scorers didn't have an impact. They did. They combined for five shots. They played well at both ends of the ice. But the only time either showed up on the score sheet was when Kucherov scored an empty-netter with just over a minute left.

Those two are way too good to be held off the board too often. But Thursday, the Lightning proved it can score a bunch of goals and win without relying on Stamkos and Kucherov.

So now it's on to Game 2 Saturday afternoon back at Amalie.

It won't be easy. New Jersey will respond with a better effort because that's what teams do in the postseason. The Devils will show more fight, more desperation, more determination. All Jersey wants is to win one of the first two and that's still a possibility.

The Lightning will have to match New Jersey's intensity. It won't be easy.

The playoffs never are.

But they sure are fun. Always.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones

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