RALEIGH, N.C. — As the regular season was winding down last month, and the Lightning were losing leverage for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, it didn’t worry anyone inside the Tampa Bay locker room.
For good reason. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup isolated and without fans in the bubble a year ago. So far this postseason, they’ve gone into two road arenas and silenced the opposing team’s fans.
The Lightning took control of their first-round series win over the Panthers by taking the opening two games in Sunrise, and after Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Hurricanes at PNC Arena, they’ve done the same against the Central Division champions in the second round.
They fed off the energy of the largest crowds they’ve played in front of since the pandemic began — two nights of near-capacity 16,299 raucous fans in Raleigh.
“There were a couple points when if we had won (a few) games at the end of the season, we would have had home ice against Florida,” said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, whose second-period goal broke a scoreless tie. “And we weren’t too worried about it in a sense because we knew that, regardless of home or away, we’ve had enough experience in the playoffs that it wasn’t going to faze us. These crowds are great; they’re actually super loud and that energy can work both ways. It can get us going, too.”
Most of their games against Carolina have been tightly-contested — seven of the 10 decided by two goals or fewer — and the Hurricanes’ full-court press style of play doesn’t allow much space for offense. Tuesday, the Lightning had just 15 shots on goal, but still found enough offense to win.
“I don’t think, to be honest, there’s going to be a lot of pretty passing-play goals in this series,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said. “There’s not a lot of room out there offensively on both sides with the way that the teams defend and the way that the goaltenders are playing. Even special teams tonight, it was more of a penalty-kill clinic than a power-play clinic.”
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had his third straight stellar start of the postseason. He held the Hurricanes scoreless the final 1:30 of the game and finished with 31 saves. He has stopped 68 of the 70 shots he’s faced in the two games against Carolina. Going back to the series-clinching Game 6 over Florida, he has posted a phenomenal .979 save percentage.
The Tampa Bay defense did its part against an aggressive Carolina attack. The Hurricanes had 32 shots, but the Lightning interrupted passing lanes, prevented screens in front of the net and blocked 16 shots.
“It’s a luxury to have him back there,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Vasilevskiy. “But I look at our team defense tonight. And people will look at the shot clock and sit there and say, ‘The Lightning got out shot.’ But what we look at is were they quality shots? ... That’s what we wanted to do for him. Let him see pucks, clear rebounds, and when we do break down, he’s there for us.”
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Killorn’s goal came 7:09 into the second period after some blue-collar work on the forecheck by the Lightning’s second line.
Stamkos fed Killorn in the far corner and Killorn shielded himself from Carolina wing Teuvo Teravainen as he circled back toward the blue line, then flicked a shot just past Anthony Cirelli and Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin, who shielded goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic from seeing it cleanly.
Cirelli gave the Lightning much-needed insurance, scoring 8:06 into the third. Coming off a line change, Victor Hedman’s stretch pass sprung Cirelli in the Carolina zone, and with Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei on his back, Cirelli scored on a back-handed shot across the crease and inside the far post.
After Andrei Svechnikov scored with 90 seconds left in the third, the Lightning fought off the PNC Arena crowd until the final seconds through a 6-on-5 that saw some tense moments around the net, including Carolina forward Sebastian Aho sending a puck of the far post in front of the crease.
“I just think we know how important it is to win on the road in the playoffs, how tough it is first of all, especially in a building like this,” Stamkos said. “It was rocking these last two games, so to come in here and get both wins was huge. We know how hard it is to win this time of the year, period. So to come in here, it’s a huge lift for us. We get to come home in front of our fans that are going to be just as rowdy.”
As the series moves to Tampa for Thursday’s Game 3 at Amalie Arena, the Lightning will take a 2-0 lead into a playoff series for the eighth time in franchise history. In those previous seven, they never lost a series.
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