Give the Lightning an opening, however small, and they usually will find a way to exploit it. To large effect.
Carolina seemingly played the game it wanted in Game 1 of its second-round series against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Feeding off an energetic crowd of 16,000-plus, the Hurricanes were flying from the start, pushing the pace and keeping the Lightning on their heels. They had good exits out of their defensive zone and got their low-to-high game going in the offensive zone, retrieving pucks, getting them back to the point and sending them back in on net.
Carolina outshot Tampa Bay 38-30, and seemingly only the play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy kept Tampa Bay from falling behind.
Even when the Lightning were on the power play, the Hurricanes forced the issue, pressuring all over the ice. But the one shot Tampa Bay got on its first chance with the man-advantage, it put it in the net.
Victor Hedman put a shot-pass from the top of the left circle on the tape of Brayden Point’s stick, and Point redirected the puck between the legs of Carolina goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic for the opening goal.
Then, with the score tied and just over seven minutes remaining, Barclay Goodrow collected a puck low in the left circle and shot from a bad angle from just above the goal line. Nedeljkovic fell forward, losing his angle, and Goodrow found the slight opening Nedeljkovic left on the short side.
Two chances were all the Lightning needed to take a one-game lead in the series.
It had nothing to do with fortune. But it went to show how dangerous the Lightning can be with the puck on their sticks — and how dispiriting their opportunism can be for opponents.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 2-1 win in Game 1:
Picking up the slack
The Lightning started the game with only six defensemen when David Savard was declared out with an upper-body injury. Things got thinner on the blue line when Erik Cernak left the ice late in the second period after getting sandwiched between Vincent Trocheck and Andrei Svechnikov against the end boards. His face appeared to hit Trocheck’s visor after he was hit by Svechnikov.
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Cernak’s loss left Tampa Bay with five defensemen and cost it one of its top shut-down defenders (his work, alongside Ryan McDonagh against Aleksander Barkov’s line was one of the keys against Florida) and its top right-shot defenseman, Jan Rutta and Luke Schenn being the others.
To make up for Cernak’s absence, Victor Hedman played more than 27 minutes, McDonagh more than 25, Mikhail Sergachev 22-plus, Rutta more than 19 and Schenn 8-plus.
Looking for reasons the Lightning lead the series? This is a good place to start.
Hed of the class
What more can you say about Hedman at this point? With the possible exception of Vasilevskiy, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner was the best player on the ice for the Lightning.
Despite questions about his health and the possibility of offseason surgery, Hedman played almost half the game, leading Tampa Bay in ice time at 27:36, including more than 10 minutes in the deciding third period.
He used his size, strength and smarts to send pucks out of the zone and alleviate pressure; made a good play with his stick to block a shot, then started a rush up ice; had three big blocks down the stretch, including one on Dougie Hamilton and another on Svechnikov with Vasilevskiy out of the net; and he set up Point’s goal with a beautiful pass-shot.
Is Hedman the best all-around defenseman in the game right now? I’m not going to say he’s not.
Your best defender
For all of the work done by Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev, Rutta and Schenn after Cernak left the game, the Lightning’s best defender, as always, was Vasilevskiy.
With Tampa Bay trying to find its footing, he stopped all 15 Carolina shots in the first period (and 26 through the first two), none bigger than when he went into a split to make a glove save on Sebastian Aho’s shot from the slot with just over five minutes remaining in the period.
Close behind were Vasilevskiy’s back-to-back stops on Trocheck during Carolina’s first power play. With Trocheck trying to jam the puck past him from in front, Vasilevskiy put his stick on the ice and took away the bottom of the net.
Everything else being equal, Vasilevskiy gives the Lightning an edge in any series.
Fourth-line center Tyler Johnson set the tone in the Lightning’s series-clinching victory over the Panthers, using his speed and skill to beat an icing call before setting up Pat Maroon for the winning goal, and his line helped Tampa Bay find its legs again on Sunday.
With the Lightning unable to stretch the neutral zone due to the Hurricanes stepping up their defenders and getting help from a forward to make sure they always had three men back, Tampa Bay had trouble entering the Carolina zone with possession for much of the first period.
But Johnson managed to find some open space and got pucks to the net during a couple of second-period shifts, and it wasn’t long before his teammates, such as Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Point, followed suit.
Pressing the point
The Hurricanes out-chanced the Predators when Nashville had the man-advantage during their first-round series, because they are so aggressive in applying pressure with their penalty kill.
It was no different on the Lightning’s first power play, after Brock McGinn was penalized for high-sticking Sergachev. Jordan Staal cleared the puck out of the Carolina zone, Jaccob Slavin stole the puck at the Lightning blue line and had a short-handed opportunity, and the Hurricanes later sent the puck again out of their zone.
Unable to set up in the Carolina zone, Tampa Bay adjusted by getting the puck to the net quickly, as Hedman sent a shot-pass toward Point from the left circle before the pressure could get to him, using the Hurricanes’ aggressiveness against them.
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