COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Lightning said what they said, but actions speak louder than words and this was not just another game.
Any doubt that the team had some lingering feelings over last year’s playoff sweep at Columbus’ hands flew out the window when Nikita Kucherov scored a few minutes into the Lightning’s 2-1 overtime win on Monday.
After tipping the puck into the net at 2:29, he blew by Braydon Coburn reaching for a high five with a chopping gesture directed in the direction of the crowd and penalty box where sat Pierre Luc Dubois, who tangled with Kucherov in a scrum earlier and who who certainly got under the Lightning’s skin in April. Kucherov is often one for an emphatic fist pump, but this was different.
Kucherov downplayed the celebration, saying the goal didn’t mean anything, it just got them on the board. But that statement doesn’t match his actions.
Kucherov showed more emotion on that goal than he did upon scoring the game-winner, 31 seconds into overtime, finding space at the back door after Brayden Point picked up a turnover behind the net.
“There was a lot of anticipation coming into this game,” Alex Killorn said. “It was a game we wanted to win. Whenever you play a team that you’ve played in the playoffs, there’s a higher level of gamesmanship, especially since what happened last year.”
Coach Jon Cooper said a win on Monday doesn’t erase anything from last year, that this is a new year and a different season. And it definitely doesn’t. It didn’t feel entirely like a rematch given the different makeup of this Columbus team.
But the Lightning wanted this one. They wanted to win in the building where their season ended, where the hype of a record-setting regular season fell far short of their expectations.
Set in the framework of this season, this was a game between the two teams with the most points since the start of January. Columbus had won eight of their last nine games coming in. With the win, the Lightning extended their win streak to seven games and the point streak to nine.
That would have been enough to elicit the tightly fought, checking game we saw on Monday, and it got physical
The game’s first scrum came early and featured a Lightning player who didn’t play in the playoff series as the emotions went beyond that history.
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Kevin Shattenkirk objected to how close Columbus center Pierre-Luc Dubois got to Curtis McElhinney as the goalie covered the puck. They exchanged shoves and a slash from Dubois and both went to the box.
The next scrum also started with players who weren’t around in April. Luke Schenn hit Nathan Gerbe and the much-smaller Columbus forward (5-foot-4 vs 6-foot-2) did not like it. Pat Maroon also got involved in the ensuing mashup. Luke Schenn threw his body around as the game went on as well.
“There’s really tight checking out there,” Schenn said. “With the checking, you’re going to get some physical play. I think both teams brought a bit of an edge tonight. It was a lot of fun out there and kind of like a playoff game.”
Schenn, who featured prominently in the game’s physicality, added that it’s just kind of in his DNA.
This wasn’t a loose, wild physical kind of game though. It was a well-played game. The Lightning came out strong in the first and then the Blue Jackets responded with a lot of pressure in the second.
Oliver Bjorkstrand tied the game up 3:44 into the middle frame. He took advantage of a stick-less Erik Cernak, moved in on McElhinney alone and backhanded the puck up over his pads.
The tie game stood through the final 36:16 of regulation, until Kucherov scored again early in the overtime.