Tyler Johnson was flying. Pat Maroon was mucking. And Ross Colton was, well, scoring.
And a Lightning squad teeming with stars at every position stormed into the Stanley Cup semifinals for the fifth time in seven seasons on the shoulders of its ... fourth line?
You’d be hard-pressed to find a filthier goal than Brayden Point’s winner in the second period of Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over the Hurricanes. Or a more spectacular save than Andrei Vasilevskiy’s sprawling stop on Vincent Trocheck moments earlier to keep the game scoreless.
But for sheer dominance over the course of the night, no forward line could match the one lowest on Tampa Bay’s lineup sheet. Johnson, Maroon and Colton combined for a goal, 13 shot attempts (six on goal), two hits and a blocked shot in just over 7-1/2 minutes of play.
Johnson, bumped to the fourth line this season after spending most of his career among the top six forwards, was reminiscent of the pivot who centered the “Triplets” line during Tampa Bay’s run to the 2015 Stanley Cup final. He skated like his pants were on fire and created offense everywhere he went. He set up Maroon for scoring chances in front of the net in the first and third periods and generated three of his own in the second.
In addition to his work around the net and along the boards, Maroon gave the Lightning the man-advantage that led to Point’s goal, drawing Jani Hakanpaa into an interference penalty immediately following a faceoff in the Carolina end. And Colton, whose three shots on goal tied for most on the team, shot every chance he got.
You thought surely the line would be rewarded for its hard work when Johnson dropped a pass into the slot for Maroon midway through the third period. Maroon couldn’t get the puck to the net, but he chased it into the corner and centered a pass for Colton in the low slot. Colton’s first try was stopped by Alex Nedeljkovic, and the goaltender deflected his followup attempt away from the net.
After conferring over a tablet on the Lightning bench, the three found the answer they were looking for on their next shift. Colton, who hit the post on a 2-on-1 with Johnson earlier in the game, collected a loose puck after Erik Cernak stood up Steven Lorentz at the Lightning blue line, skated to the right circle in the Hurricanes zone and wristed a knuckler toward the net that got under Nedeljkovic’s glove for an important insurance goal.
The line looked comfortable and confident throughout the night. Johnson smiled at Maroon — who collided with the net, knocking it off its moorings — after threading a pass through the crease that the big forward tipped over the net in the first period. Later, Maroon, whose colorful language while complaining to officials during the second period was caught by television microphones, fist-bumped them as he left the ice.
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That’s how you close out a series.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 5:
Point’s second-period goal was a thing of beauty, the center taking a cross-ice pass from Alex Killorn and going backhand-forehand-backhand, flipping the puck up over Nedeljkovic on the power play for his fourth goal of the series, sixth in the past seven games and eighth of the playoffs.
For sheer spectacle, it was matched only by the save from Vasilevskiy at the other end of the ice just moments earlier. With the Lightning on the power play, Vasilevskiy exploded from his right to his left, kept himself square to the puck and lunged to make a glove save on a Trocheck shorthanded chance on a 2-on-1 with Jordan Staal.
Even for a team spoiled by sensational plays, these were one-of-a-kind efforts.
Grade: A-plus, in both instances
Hurts so good
Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev took the punishment, but it was Hurricanes counterpart Dougie Hamilton who had to have been hurting the most.
Hamilton had a couple of great scoring chances in the second period, but Sergachev threw his body in front of both. He blocked a Hamilton shot from just above the right circle with his skate, then took a Hamilton shot from the slot off his, er, rump, later in the period.
Sergachev looked the worse for wear, but he was right back on the ice for his next shift.
They were two of a game-high five blocks for Sergachev in the game. He also stepped in front of an Andrei Svechnikov shot from the left circle in the third period.
Toughness isn’t just about fighting.
When does a puck beat a goaltender, cross the goal line and still not count as a goal?
When it fails to beat the clock, as Cernak found out at the end of the second period. As the final seconds ticked down in the period, Killorn won a battle behind the net and passed around the boards to Cernak at the right point. Cernak’s shot beat Nedeljkovic on the glove side, but as replays showed, crossed the goal line mere tenths of a second after the period clock had expired.
Instead of a comfortable 2-0 advantage after two periods, the Lightning headed to the third clinging to a one-goal lead.
After the craziness that was the eight-goal second period in Game 4, the Lightning entered Game 5 expecting more of the structured defensive play we saw in Games 1 and 2.
A key was getting the first goal, something Tampa Bay had done in three (winning on each occasion) of the first four games in the series and eight (winning seven) of the previous 10.
Point gave the Lightning the goal they needed in the second period, and they were able to focus on defending as a group and seize their opportunities as they came, not having to take unnecessary risks as they might if playing from behind.
They followed the blueprint to perfection, closing out yet another playoff win — their 24th (and sixth series win) over the past two seasons.
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