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Lightning’s defense shines as the win streak hits nine

Tampa Bay defeats the Oilers and has not allowed more than two goals in its last seven games
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, of Russia, makes a save against Edmonton Oilers' Zack Kassian during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning won 3-1. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) [MIKE CARLSON | AP]

TAMPA — The Lightning are known for their potent, high-scoring offense, for flashy players and creativity with the puck. It’s a fairly earned reputation, but it’s not how they are winning games right now.

Tampa Bay extended its winning streak to nine with a 3-1 win over Edmonton on Thursday. In eight of those games, it has kept the opponent to two goals or fewer.

“If you give up two or less, you’re giving yourself a very good chance to win the game,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Three is in the balance, and four, you’re in trouble. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to score your way out of games.”

Related: Edmonton's Zack Kassian aims a dangerous kick at Erik Cernak

That was the focus for the Lightning (38-15-5) coming into this season: Allow fewer goals. They’ve achieved that. Right back on top of the league with 206 goals scored, the Lightning have allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the NHL, 153. That adds up to the best goal differential at plus-53.

“We’re focusing on good defense every night,” said Pat Maroon, who scored the Lightning’s first goal of the night. “Everyone’s finding ways to close the house, and it makes it difficult for teams to find a way to come into the middle.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves against Edmonton, has been one of the hottest goalies in the league, going back further than the recent defensive crack down. He has not lost a game in regulation in his last 20 starts.

The Lightning have taken on some high-scoring opponents in this stretch of allowing two or fewer goals. Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl leads the league with 90 points after an assist Thursday and is in the top 10 with 32 goals this season.

Sidney Crosby has played only 27 games for the Penguins this season, but he has 31 points in that span. He didn’t make the score sheet in either of the Lightning’s two games against Pittsburgh this month.

The Lightning took a 2-1 lead in the second period Thursday. Maroon opening the scoring on a rebound of Cameron Gaunce’s shot early in the period. Caleb Jones responded with a goal for Edmonton to tie the score. Then Yanni Gourde came through on a shorthanded breakaway for his second goal in two games after breaking a 35-game goal drought Tuesday against the Penguins.

“The theme after the second (period) was just to keep the game simple,” Cooper said. “We were bogged down pretty good in the middle there, so I didn’t think we gave them a whole ton.”

Related: Depth scoring comes through for the Lighting amidst injuries

That simple game, not getting too fancy with the puck and letting chances come organically, has been working for the Lightning. They’ve also played shutdown third periods in their past three games. The Islanders were the last team to score a third-period goal against the Lightning, on Saturday. Gourde called his team hard to play against, repeating what Maroon and Cooper said about clogging up the middle.

“We track really hard, and when we do that, it just helps out (the defense) to have good gaps,” he said. “(Opponents) probably feel like there are six players on the ice playing against us, and that’s what we want.”

Maroon has seen the Lightning’s focus tighten over this stretch of strong play against tough teams. The Lightning are finding their game and finding ways to win games 3-1 or 2-1 (such as Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime win against Pittsburgh). Maroon is seeing smart plays in Tampa Bay’s zone and at the opposite blue line.

“Before you know it, it’s going to be March, and then before you know it, it’s going to be April,” he said. “It’s better to nip it in the bud now and when April comes around (with the playoffs), be ready.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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