Goals are scored at the ends of the ice, but games — particularly in the playoffs — are often won between the two blue lines in the middle.
There was nothing neutral about that zone on Monday. The Lightning controlled the area in a 5-1 win over the Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, moving to within three victories of a second straight Cup.
Because its forwards did such a good job of pressuring on the backcheck, Tampa Bay defenders were able to stand up at the blue line and deny Montreal easy entry into the zone.
NBC studio analyst Anson Carter joked at one point that the Canadiens would have an easier time getting back across the Canadian border than across the Lightning blue line.
As soon as Tampa Bay got control of the puck, it pushed the pace — its defensemen joining its transition game — and did a nice job of managing the puck, resulting in three goals off the rush.
First-line center Brayden Point played particularly well in the neutral zone, using his speed and skating ability to disrupt Montreal’s transition game and setting up the Lightning’s first goal with a strong defensive play in his own zone.
Defenseman Jan Rutta initiated Yanni Gourde’s second-period goal by picking off a pass above the circles in the Tampa Bay zone and passing ahead to Blake Coleman on the breakout. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev later created a turnover at center ice to set up the first of Nikita Kucherov’s two third-period goals.
In the process, Tampa Bay did what Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas failed to do against Montreal in the first three rounds of the playoffs: get pucks behind the Canadiens’ defenders and create scoring opportunities off the rush.
Call it tilting the ice.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 1:
The playoff’s leading goal scorer created the turnover in the defensive zone, and one of the Lightning’s top shut-down defenders put the puck in net on Tampa Bay’s opening goal early in the first period.
Point skated hard to the center of the ice on the backcheck and intercepted Nick Suzuki’s drop pass for Tyler Toffoli in the Lightning zone. He flipped the puck to defenseman Erik Cernak, who skated to center ice, then passed to wing Ondrej Palat and went hard to the net.
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Palat carried the puck to the top of the left circle, then sent a pass along the ice to Cernak in the slot. Cernak redirected the puck high over goaltender Carey Price’s glove from between the hashmarks to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead just over six minutes into the game.
Scorers defending? Defenders scoring?
If that’s not complete buy-in to Jon Cooper’s system, I don’t know what is.
If at first ...
Price might have thought he had a reprieve when Barclay Goodrow’s shot from the high slot early in the second period was blocked. But Blake Coleman didn’t give up on the play, finding the loose puck and shooting from slightly lower in the slot.
Yanni Gourde took away Price’s eyes with a screen in front of the net, drawing defenseman Jon Merrill with him, and then stole what would have been Coleman’s first goal in 18 games and second of the playoffs.
After first awarding the goal to Coleman, official scorers determined later that Gourde deflected the puck into the net and gave it to him instead.
Just Tampa Bay’s third line doing what it does best.
Whatever it takes
Alex Killorn gave up his stick, then his body.
After Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman lost his stick behind the Tampa Bay net in the second period, Killorn gave him his own, then skated out to the left circle, where he laid out to block a Jeff Petry shot from the right point with the heel of his left skate.
Killorn was in obvious pain as he went to the bench, where his teammates made sure he knew they appreciated his selfless play.
They didn’t realize how big of a sacrifice had had made until later, as Killorn was limited to a few short shifts the rest of the period and only one 23-second appearance in the third.
Round 1 to Vasy
Many observers view the Stanley Cup final as a passing of the torch from Price to the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy as the league’s best goaltender.
If Vasilevskiy hadn’t already taken Price’s crown with his play over the past few seasons, he certainly got the better of his counterpart in Game 1, stopping 18 of the 19 shots he faced.
Both goalies had spectacular saves in the second period, Vasilevskiy making a glove stop on a Shea Weber shot from low in the left circle on a breakaway and Price sprawling to his right to make a blocker save on a Tyler Johnson backhand attempt.
While Price yielded five goals on 27 shots, the only puck to get past Vasilevskiy came on a double deflection, as Ben Chiarot’s shot from the right point late in the second period ricocheted off Anthony Cirelli in the right circle and then Ryan McDonagh in front of the net.
Leading by three goals, the Lightning sent five forwards onto the ice after Joel Edmundson was penalized for roughing Gourde in the closing minutes, giving Tampa Bay a brief 5-on-3 advantage.
More important than giving Tampa Bay a four-goal cushion, Steven Stamkos’ one-timer from the left circle after Jesperi Kotkaniemi returned to the ice (making it 5-on-4) ended Montreal’s penalty-kill streak at 32.
It gave Tampa Bay’s some confidence after failing to convert a couple of opportunities earlier in the game and served notice to Montreal that it has not yet faced a power play with the level of skill and diversity of scoring options of Tampa Bay’s.
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