TAMPA — Given how much anticipation there was entering the season about last year’s Stanley Cup final teams being paired in the same division, it’s interesting that the Lightning will play a big role in whether the Stars make the playoffs this year.
With Dallas battling for the Central Division’s fourth and final playoff spot, three of its final seven games are against Tampa Bay.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper expected to see a desperate team for their game Thursday night at Amalie Arena.
The game had the energy of a postseason contest. The Stars came out buzzing, and after Dallas took momentum with a one-sided second period, the Lightning took a page out of their Stanley Cup-winning playbook with a lockdown defensive performance in the third to seal a 3-0 win.
The Lightning (34-14-2) held the Stars to two shots in the third period, controlled the puck and refused to give Dallas open looks at the net. The Lightning had seven of their 16 blocked shots in the third.
“The third period was championship hockey,” said forward Blake Coleman. “Guys were committed to blocking shots. We were paying the price physically. Down on the boards, guys are doing their jobs, and that’s the kind of hockey we need to play going into the playoffs.
“I think we had a little bit of defensive lapses, and this was a good step in the right direction. If we keep playing that way, we’re going to be a really hard to beat.”
The Lightning have won four straight and five of their past six games.
With six games left, Dallas is two points back of Nashville for fourth in the division with one game in hand.
Coleman’s penalty shot goal 8:27 into the third gave the Lightning much-needed breathing room and deflated the Stars’ attack. Coleman took the puck away from Dallas defenseman John Klingberg at center ice, then raced toward the net before he was tripped up from behind by Klingberg.
On the penalty shot, Coleman methodically skated along the right side before launching a wrist shot from the top hashmark that beat goaltender Jake Oettinger top shelf along his blocker side.
“I have a couple moves that I like to do, and that’s one of them,” Coleman said. “The ice (was) a little bit of a little bouncy (Thursday), and sometimes you just got to keep it simple and just shoot the puck.”
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who recorded his fifth shutout of the season (three have come against the Stars), kept the Lightning in the game in the second period as it clinged to a one-goal lead. Twelve of his 20 saves came in the second, including a stop of a 2-on-1 breakaway, turning away forward Roope Hintz’s shot with 9:35 left.
“That’s why you have a goalie, to bail you out when things don’t go the way you planned,” Cooper said. “It was good to see (Vasilevskiy) get into his rhythm. You could see he was tracking pucks. He was on it, and then otherwise, there were some big blocks, too. Guys were sacrificing. It was nice to see.”
Vasilevskiy is 5-1-0 with a .948 save percentage against the Stars this year. Thursday’s victory gave him 30 wins for the fourth consecutive season. No Lightning goalie has had more than three 30-win seasons.
The Lightning, who face the Stars again at Amalie Arena Wednesday and next Friday, came away from the win embracing a playoff atmosphere.
“We’ve got these guys two more times, so it’s going to ramp up even more,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “We had a good first period, got away from us in the second. We didn’t get hurt because (Vasilevskiy) stood tall, and the third we got back to being responsible.
“It’s probably not going to be high-scoring games anymore against desperate teams and going forward into the playoffs, so it’s good for us to scratch and claw and, most important, keep the puck out of our net.”
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Palat 15, 14:41. Penalties—Benn, DAL (Interference), 6:25.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Schenn, TB (Tripping), 1:20.
Third Period—2, Tampa Bay, Coleman 12, 8:27 (ps). 3, Tampa Bay, Point 22 (Vasilevskiy), 18:39 (en). Penalties—Cirelli, TB (High Sticking), 7:47.
Shots on Goal—Dallas 6-12-2_20. Tampa Bay 14-2-12_28. Power-play opportunities—Dallas 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Dallas, Oettinger 10-6-6 (27 shots-25 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 29-8-1 (20-20). A—4,200 (19,092). T—2:16. Referees—Francis Charron, Jon Mclsaac. Linesmen—Kory Nagy, Andrew Smith.
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