TAMPA — On many nights this season, the Lightning have been their own worst critics. In their minds, they’re still searching to put together a full 60 minutes of strong, 200-foot hockey.
Given that they haven’t been quick to pat themselves on the back, it was eyebrow-raising to hear forward Blake Coleman describe the third period of Thursday’s 3-0 win over Dallas as “championship hockey.”
The Lightning have been frustrated throughout the season by defensive lapses, especially since their path to the Stanley Cup last season depended on stout defense. Here’s what made Thursday’s third period the kind of hockey the Lightning will want to repeat in the postseason.
Play smart, but aggressive, with the lead
The Lightning have already shown they play well going into the final period with the lead. They are 24-0-0 when leading after two periods. The Lightning played a really smart game Thursday and were selective when they took chances, the benefit of being ahead. They were aggressive on the forecheck and made sure they kept the Stars in front of them through the neutral zone.
Blake Coleman’s pickpocket of Stars defenseman John Klingberg midway through the period was the perfect example, and it led to a shorthanded, penalty-shot goal that gave the Lightning a 2-0 cushion. Dallas was struggling to get into the Lightning zone because of Tampa Bay’s pressure, and Coleman — tired at the end of a long penalty-kill shift — caught Klingberg napping with the puck off his stick at center ice. It was a heady play in the neutral zone that wasn’t reckless and led to the biggest scoring opportunity of the game.
Create a block party
After Coleman’s goal gave the Lightning a two-goal lead, they could really bear down defensively and focus on preventing Dallas from getting open looks. Four of the Stars’ next five shot attempts were blocked. The first two blocks were by defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who had all of his team-high three in the period. As important as Coleman’s goal was, the Lightning’s stinginess immediately afterward might have been even more critical.
Seven of the Lightning’s 16 blocked shots came in the period.
The Lightning paired McDonagh with trade-deadline acquisition David Savard for most of the game and relied on the twodown the stretch. “There’s no doubt he’s getting a lot more confident out there,” McDonagh said of Savard, who had two blocks. “You see he’s so strong in his own end any time there was a kind of an open look there. He just sacrifices and blocks a shot, he’s so willing.”
Blocking shots was a big part of the Lightning’s Stanley Cup final win over Dallas, as they averaged 18 blocks over the course of the six-game series.
Control the zone
The Lightning dominated puck possession in the third period, limiting the Stars to two shots on goal. Based on Corsi For Percentage, a stat that uses shot attempts to measure puck possession, the Lightning had a 57.6-percent advantage in the period.
They took away the middle of the ice from the Stars, who outshot the Lightning 12-2 in the second period, and forced them to play a more east-west game. That moved the action along the boards and into the corners, where Tampa Bay dominated play in the third.
The Stars had eight scoring opportunities in the period but just one high-danger scoring chance, protecting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy after he made 12 saves in the second.
“You’ve won (the Cup) once, so you know the recipe and the formula for success,” Coleman said. “There’s been times when we strayed from it. We also know how to get it back and what it looks like when things are are going the right way for us.
“I think we’re starting to feel that excitement that playoff hockey is right around the corner. You want to be ready to rock when the puck drops for playoffs.”
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