A Stanley Cup can’t be won before making the playoffs first, and all along, the Lightning have taken a business-like approach to their defense of the Cup.
Tampa Bay turned in one of its best offensive efforts of the season, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 7-4 at the United Center and clinching a postseason berth.
“That’s what you play for, so it’s great to be in,” said center Brayden Point. “Now we’ve got to look at ways to improve our game and make sure we’re ready to go in these last games.”
The Lightning (33-14-2) set a season high with seven goals. After going through a stretch in which they struggled to score, the Lightning now have 14 goals in their past three games. They have also won four of their past five games and seven of 10.
“I appreciate it every time we win a hockey game and even more when you make the playoffs,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s high expectation in this organization. It’s to make the playoffs every single year and you want it to become the norm. And these guys have done that, so I couldn’t be more proud of them. To put yourself in a situation to compete for a Stanley Cup, you have to make the playoffs, and the guys have done that. Who knows where it’s going to go from here, but it always feels good when you step over that hurdle.”
Point notched his second straight three-point game, including a pivotal wrap-around goal — his team-high 21st — that gave the Lightning a 4-2 lead with 6:40 into the second period.
Alex Killorn scored twice, once on the power play and another into an empty net late in the third, and Mikhail Sergachev had the primary assist on two goals.
Tuesday’s game was an odd one. The teams combined for 15 penalties, creating 19:48 — nearly a whole period’s worth — of special teams time. The Lightning were 6-for-7 on the penalty kill. Tampa Bay struck quickly, with two in the game’s first 4:15, but the Blackhawks didn’t go away.
Defenseman Erik Cernak scored on his first shift of the game, lighting the lamp just 28 seconds in, jumping up to intercept a pass in the defensive zone and creating his own breakaway before beating Chicago goaltender Kevin Lankinen through the five hole.
Yanni Gourde redirected Sergachev’s pass across the crease inside the far post to put the Lightning up 2-0 at the 4:15 mark.
Three penalties within a stretch of seven minutes, 31 seconds put the Lightning on the penalty kill through most of the middle part of the first period. Vasilevskiy didn’t allow a goal on the Chicago power play, but playing shorthanded disrupted the Lightning’s momentum.
After the Blackhawks made it 2-1 on a puck that went off Blake Coleman’s stick and Barclay Goodrow’s skate and into the net, rookie Alex Barre-Boulet scored his second NHL goal with 4:56 left in the first. Barre-Boulet, who also scored Sunday, flicked a back-handed shot toward the net, then followed up with a putback in traffic that was true.
Chicago responded with Wyatt Kalynuk’s goal on a wrister from the right circle that Vasilevskiy got a piece of but allowed it to slide in.
After Point scored, Coleman put the Lightning up 5-2 at the 9:21 mark in the second, set up by a heady feed by Tyler Johnson from behind the net. Killorn then redirected a Sergachev puck toward the goal on the power play with 6:21 left in the second. After Dominik Kubalik scored on the power play, Killorn’s empty-netter with 51 seconds left sealed the victory.
“They’re a super skilled group so you never count them out of the game,” Point said. “A little breathing room with a group that talented is always nice.”
Vasilevskiy notched his league-leading 29th win of the season, making 36 saves. He was 7-0-0 against the Blackhawks this season and is 11-0-0 in the regular season against Chicago in his career.
Lightning defenseman David Savard, acquired at the trade deadline, missed Tuesday’s game with a lower body injury and is considered day to day. That gave rookie Cal Foote his first game action in eight outings. Foote took two early penalties in the opening period, his second coming just 30 seconds after he exited the box from his first.
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