RALEIGH, N.C. — The Lightning didn’t lose any sleep over finishing third in the Central Division. They know championships aren’t won in the regular season. Yes, they learned that lesson the hard way and went into the postseason carrying a calm confidence that their best players would make big plays in the most critical moments.
Getting past their division foes in the first two rounds was no easy task, but the Lightning emptied another road arena Tuesday night, turning out the lights on the division champion Carolina Hurricanes’ season.
After its 2-0 victory in Game 5, Tampa Bay is back among the final four playoff teams, advancing to the Stanley Cup semifinals. The Lightning await the winner of the East Division matchup between the Islanders and Bruins. New York leads that series 3-2 going into Wednesday’s Game 5.
The Hurricanes had just three regulation losses at home during the regular season, but the Lightning beat them three times this series in Raleigh
Including last year’s Stanley Cup run, the Lightning have won six straight playoff series and are halfway to a second straight title. This is the fifth time in the past seven years that the Lightning have advanced to the final four.
This trip has been different than last year’s. After winning the Cup in the bubble without fans, the Lightning’s path to the semifinals has gone through two loud road arenas full of passionate fans who waited through the pandemic to fill their buildings again. The Lightning won five of their six road playoff games in Carolina and Florida, quieting crowds, breaking hearts and shattering postseason hopes along the way.
“I’m going to tell you,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I’ve been very fortunate to coach in a few playoffs now, and those are two of the toughest rounds we’ve ever faced. It was a hell of a grind to get out of this division.”
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded his third straight series-clinching shutout, stopping all 29 shots he faced. He also had 29 saves in Tampa Bay’s Game 6 win over Florida and shut out the Dallas Stars in last postseason’s Cup-clinching Game 6.
Tuesday’s game tilted during a 38-second span early in the second period. The game was still scoreless when, seconds into a Tampa Bay power play, Carolina had a shorthanded 2-on-1 breakaway that put every one of the roughly 16,299 fans at PNC Arena on their feet.
Nikita Kucherov lost the puck in the neutral zone and Jordan Staal led a rush up the left side before feeding Vincent Trocheck charging toward the near post. Vasilevskiy slid from one side to the other and made a glove save to stop Trocheck’s shot from heading to the top shelf.
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“I tried to try to get across as fast as possible and the guy actually, he made a good shot, and I just tried to react to it,” Vasilevskiy said. “It was kind of an awkward knuckleball, and I think I touched it with my glove or my pad. I don’t even remember.”
On the other end, Alex Killorn stormed off the Lightning bench and took the puck along the far wall, worked around Trocheck and past a diving Brett Pesce as he crossed the right circle before feeding Brayden Point along the near post.
Point took the pass on his backhand side, faked to his forehand, sending Carolina goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic to his left, before returning to his backhand and tucking the puck high inside the near post.
“He’s done a lot for us this year,” Point said of Vasilevskiy. “He makes a big save one way and we come down and end up capitalizing. It was a pretty messy power play. They were all over us, pressuring us hard and giving us fits. We get one chance, and we made it count.”
Every game of this series was decided by two goals or fewer, and the Lightning locked down defensively in the third period. They totaled 22 blocked shots on the night.
The Lightning’s fourth line didn’t get much ice time — a total of 5:39 together during 5-on-5 play — but was brilliant. They frustrated the Hurricanes on the forecheck and were rewarded in the third period on Ross Colton’s goal from the right circle. Tyler Johnson buzzed around the net all night, and Maroon battled for possession in the dirty areas.
“Carolina comes out so hard and especially in this building,” Point said. “They work so hard, and they had a huge push there in the second period where we were just surviving. They played fantastic. I think that game could have gone either way, but we were lucky to get that one.”
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