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Lightning outlast Predators for win

Backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney preserves a late lead in his first game in 11 months.
Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney blocks a shot by Nashville Predators right wing Viktor Arvidsson (33) during the second period.
Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney blocks a shot by Nashville Predators right wing Viktor Arvidsson (33) during the second period. [ MARK ZALESKI | AP ]
Published Feb. 9, 2021|Updated Feb. 9, 2021

The Lightning have already seen enough of the Predators this season to know that Nashville wasn’t going to go away quietly in the third period of Monday night’s game at Bridgestone Arena.

Clinging to a two-goal lead entering the final period, a Predators charge was inevitable, so Lightning backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who was making his first start in exactly 11 months, had to be prepared for a barrage the 12-year veteran hadn’t seen in awhile.

And the 37-year-old McElhinney spent most of the third deflecting, twisting and diving to stop Nashville’s offensive flurry, which included two power plays and an extra attacker with its goalie pulled through the final minutes. McElhinney held off the Predators enough for the Lightning to score two empty-net goals for a 4-1 win.

“‘Mac’ was unbelievable, just the way he works, how hard he works,” said Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli, who scored the Lightning’s first two goals, one on a power play with 6:58 left in the second period for a 2-0 lead. “We gave (Nashville) some pretty good chances there in the third, and Mac was there to bail us out.”

The win was the Lightning’s fifth straight and third over the Predators in the past 10 days. The Lightning (8-1-1) took two games from the Predators at Amalie Arena last week, but Nashville had had success against the Lightning at home, compiling a 10-game point streak against them on home ice entering Monday.

McElhinney hadn’t played a game since March 8. Starter Andrei Vasilevskiy started the previous nine games this season and all 25 in the postseason last year. Add that the Lightning didn’t have preseason games and McElhinney hadn’t seen anything that resembled game action since before the coronavirus pandemic.

McElhinney also missed two weeks this season on the COVID-19 protocol list.

This week’s back-to-back games in Nashville presented the right opportunity to start McElhinney.

His teammates played superb defense in front of him, and they controlled the neutral zone so well that McElhinney didn’t see much action in the first two periods.

“I think it was an ideal start for our team,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I thought to have as little work as he had the first period, I think that was probably good for him.”

Tampa Bay outshot Nashville 27-12 through two periods.

“I was ready to get back in there and play a hockey game finally, so that was one aspect of it, but I think if anything, I was looking for a few more shots in the first period there,” McElhinney said. “We did such a good job of smothering them early on that they weren’t really able to get much going, so it was pretty quiet for a couple periods, but you knew they were going to make a little push in the end.”

With 1:24 left in the second period, McElhinney received help from defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who closed off an open net in traffic in the crease.

Nashville broke through on its fourth power play of the night. McElhinney couldn’t find defenseman Dante Fabbro’s shot from the the point through forward Viktor Arvidsson’s screen in front of the net with 8:52 remaining in the third as the Predators made the score 2-1.

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“Mac’s not 21 years old, so he’s been around for a bit,” Cooper said. “He knows how to prepare himself. I thought (Monday), the way we started was great for him to get into a game and kind of slowly get accustomed to the speed, and by the time we got to the third and it was getting a little hairy in our defensive zone at times, he was there for us.”

The Predators had 11 shots on goal in the third and seven scoring opportunities. In the waning minutes, McElhinney was on the ground facing the net when he swatted away a puck with his blocker across the crease through traffic and out of harm’s way.

“It’s one of those things,” said McElhinney, who recorded 23 saves. “I think the blocker was the only thing I had in the net at that point. We’ve got a couple blocks with the puck pingpong-balling around there, but that’s all I had left. So a little funny, but it was nice that it stayed out of the net for me.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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