It was business as usual for Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman Sunday at Amalie Arena.
The business of championship-level hockey, that is.
As they have done repeatedly over the past three postseasons, the Lightning’s two best defensemen set an example both on and off the ice in Game 3, leading Tampa Bay to within one win of returning to the Eastern Conference Final.
The two most respected voices on the team’s blueline blocked shots, took hits to make plays, got pucks out of their zone and led breakouts as Tampa Bay limited one of the league’s top offensive teams to a single goal for a fourth straight game and third in the series.
Hedman had a team-high four blocked shots, four shots on goal, an assist, a hit and a takeaway in 21:59. McDonagh spent even more time on the ice, accumulating three blocks, two hits, an assist, a takeaway, a shot on goal and a plus-four rating in a team-high 23:21.
They were at their best in the pivotal second period, when the Panthers made their biggest surge of the game but fell behind by two goals.
Hedman blocked four shots, sticking out his right knee to deny a Sam Bennett attempt from above the left circle that appeared headed for the back of the net just over two minutes into the period. Tampa Bay scored less than a minute later to go ahead 2-1 on an Erik Cernak goal.
With Hedman in the box for interference just over three minutes after the Cernak goal, McDonagh cleared the puck out of the crease and then got a stick in front of a Jonathan Huberdeau chance from in close. Less than two minutes after that, Steven Stamkos scored off the rush to extend the Lightning lead to 3-1.
Instead of a tie game, it was a two-goal Tampa Bay lead, one Hedman helped preserve by blocking an Anthony Duclair shot from the right circle as the period — and another Panthers power play — came to an end.
Their commitment rubbed off on their younger counterparts. Cernak had three blocks and four hits, in addition to his goal. Cal Foote blocked a shot and made some nice breakout passes. Mikhail Sergachev had an assist, three hits and a block. Jan Rutta cleared another puck out of the crease and, yes, blocked a shot.
It’s not always the pucks you put in the opposing net. Often, it’s the ones you keep out of your own.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 5-1 win in Game 3:
If you want a job done right, sometimes you’ve got to do it yourself. With the Lightning up 3-1 late in the third period and an empty net in front of him, Nikita Kucherov passed to Nick Paul, whose shot was blocked by Aleksander Barkov.
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When Kucherov got the puck back, he went straight to the net himself. Less than two minutes later, he set up Stamkos for another empty-net goal, part of a four-point afternoon for Kucherov, including three assists.
For all of his sublime skill, Kucherov is a set-up artist first and a scorer second, his passes to Corey Perry in Game 1 and Ross Colton at the end of Game 2 his pieces de resistance. But he’s also a threat to score (with four goals this postseason) with the puck on his stick, making it almost impossible for defenders to discern his intentions.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Whether he’s passing or shooting, the puck usually winds up in the back of the net.
Among the best — ever
It’s taken the rest of the world far too long to recognize it, but Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is in a class of his own — and has been for the past five seasons.
He gives the Lightning an insurmountable advantage in every postseason series at the sport’s most important position and raises his game as the stakes get bigger.
Vasilevskiy’s ability to play the puck and slow the forecheck is almost as important as his knack for keeping it out of the net, and it’s a big reason Tampa Bay is on a five-game postseason win streak.
With 34 saves on 35 shots Sunday, he now has stopped 102 of 105 in the series and 132 of 136 going back to Game 7 of the Maple Leafs series.
Never mind Vasilevskiy’s contemporaries. With two Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Vezina and four All-Star Game appearances already to his credit, it’s time to start considering him among the all-time greats at his position.
Leading 1-0, the Lightning lit a fire under the Panthers when Brandon Hagel cross-checked an off-balance Eetu Luostarinen from behind late in the first period, sending him hard into the boards.
Officials first assessed a five-minute major penalty before reducing it to a two-minute minor after a replay review.
It didn’t matter, as Florida quickly took advantage of the man-advantage opportunity to break their 0-for-25 power-play drought. Huberdeau showed great patience with the puck, drawing two defenders to him in the right circle, then set up Sam Reinhart for a one-timer from below the hashmarks.
Luostarinen returned near the end of the period, but it didn’t change the fact that the play by Hagel was both dangerous and unnecessary.
Grade: C, for careless
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