If the Lightning learned anything from their sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets in last season’s playoffs, it was that skill won’t do it alone.
They added size and grit during the offseason and at the trade deadline, picking up physical forwards Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. The additions allowed the Lightning to better hold their ground and win puck battles along the boards, in the corners and behind the opposing net.
Tampa Bay also realized it needed to commit fully to two things it did not during last season’s first-round ouster: upping its compete level and establishing a presence in front of the opponent’s net.
Enter Yanni Gourde.
Gourde spent much of Game 1 on Tuesday in Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo’s lap and, presumably, his head.
The feisty forward was a regular presence in front of and behind Korpisalo, jabbing at pucks, scoring and generally getting under the pads of the goaltender, who hit Gourde from behind as he left the ice at the end of the first of the five overtime periods.
Though one of the smallest players on the ice at 5 feet 9, Gourde seemed the embodiment of the new-look Lightning during a game that at a certain point came down to willpower and perseverance.
Here’s how we graded the Lightning’s performance in the 3-2 victory.
What can you say about a team that set the league mark for shots in a game with 88? That it needed to finish better? Well, okay. But there wasn’t much space to work with, and Korpisalo was outstanding tracking the puck despite the Lightning keeping the puck in his end for much of the game.
With the Blue Jackets clogging the neutral zone, the Lightning often had to dump the puck into the Columbus zone, win races to the puck, and withstand and deliver hits on the forecheck.
The Lightning did just that on the tying goal early in the third period. Goodrow kept the play alive by winning a race to the end boards. Coleman collected the puck and passed back to defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who shot from the left circle. With Gourde battling in front of the net, the puck came free behind Korpisalo, going off his pads into the net.
The winning goal was pure persistence, too. Wing Nikita Kucherov’s shot from the right side hit Columbus defenseman Vladimir Gavrikov up high, and center Brayden Point pounced on the rebound, whipping it past Korpisalo from the top of the left circle.
Victor Hedman, who suffered a lower-body injury in the final round-robin game against the Flyers on Saturday, was an ironman, logging more than 50 minutes of ice time and tying Point with a game-high nine shots on goal.
Columbus presents a unique challenge in the way its forwards sometimes apply pressure in the offensive zone and at other times pull back and look to pick off passes with active sticks in the neutral zone. After turning the puck over at times on their breakouts early in the first period, the Lightning defense tightened things up.
Lightning defensemen also got shots through to the net, which they didn’t do very successfully in last season’s series, keeping constant pressure on Korpisalo throughout the game.
Columbus was 0-for-14 on the power play in five games in the playoff-qualifying round, but it took the Blue Jackets less than three minutes to score with the man advantage Tuesday.
After wing Alex Killorn took a tripping penalty along the boards, Columbus scored when forward Alexandre Texier’s shot from the top of the left circle deflected off Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s stick, then the glove of Columbus forward Pierre-Luc Dubois as he skated in front of the net.
The Lightning got two power-play chances in overtime but failed to convert on both. Worse, an errant Kucherov pass led to a breakaway opportunity for Cam Atkinson in the fifth overtime, and only a great play by Hedman kept the Columbus forward from being all alone on Vasilevskiy.
The appearance was the 37th in the playoffs for Vasilevskiy (32 starts), passing Ben Bishop for most in Lightning history. Little did he know he would also set a personal mark for most saves in a game with 61.
The Vezina Trophy finalist looked comfortable from the start , stopping Blue Jackets forward Eric Robinson from the lower right circle after a turnover behind the Lightning net, then stoning forward Boone Jenner’s breakaway chance with a leg save after Hedman and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev got caught up ice.
Vasilevskiy made a huge pad save on forward Oliver Bjorkstrand’s shot from the slot with 10 minutes left in the third overtime, then twice stopped dangerous chances from David Savard in the fourth extra period.
Contact Frank Pastor at email@example.com. Follow @frankpastor66.