Lightning rebound at home with win over Blue Jackets

Nikita Kucherov’s four-point game paces Tampa Bay’s first victory in its past three contests.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates after beating Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (90) for the first of his two goals Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates after beating Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (90) for the first of his two goals Tuesday night at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 11, 2023|Updated Jan. 11, 2023

TAMPA — One of the lessons of learning how to play with Nikita Kucherov: Keep your stick on the ice, and he’ll find you.

The Lightning right wing, just named to his fourth career All-Star Game on Thursday, plays a chess match with defenders. What move will he make with the puck on his stick? When he winds up for a shot, he’s just as likely to touch-pass it to an open teammate or, in Nick Paul’s case, rifle the puck right off your blade for a redirection into the back of the net.

“When you’re on the ice with him, you expect the unexpected,” Paul said. “I mean, he didn’t look at me once and it’s right on my tape.”

Kucherov rarely does the same thing twice, and with the Lightning leading by a goal midway through the first period Tuesday night against Columbus, his initial shot from above the right circle was blocked. But the puck cycled back to him, giving Kucherov another look from the same spot.

Again, Kucherov raised his stick high over his head before pinpointing the puck right off Paul’s stick as he cut toward the front of the net, leaving Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins helpless on his backside.

Paul’s goal was the first of three power-play goals for the Lightning and part of a four-point night for Kucherov, who had two goals and two assists as Tampa Bay beat Columbus 6-3 at Amalie Arena.

“It’s so deceptive,” Paul said of Kucherov’s shot. “When you’re playing on the PK there, you don’t really know what he’s gonna do. You get in the shot lane, and then then next thing you know my stick’s open, he slides it right across without even looking. He’s a special player.”

The Lightning (25-13-1, 51 points) rebounded from a hard-to-swallow loss Friday in Winnipeg, a game in which their own mistakes — costly turnovers and ill-timed penalties that led to two 5-on-3 goals against them — cost them the game.

Tampa Bay allowed just one power play on Tuesday, dominated possession time and outshot Columbus 46-23, including a 21-6 margin in a first period that saw it take a 2-0 lead. But it was far from a perfect night. The Lightning allowed two even-strength goals in the third, gift-wrapping an open shot in the slot for Columbus defenseman Tim Berni 4:35 into the period to make it a 3-2 game.

“I thought for two periods, we were good,” said forward Vladislav Namestnikov, who gave the Lightning a 3-1 lead midway through the second by creating a breakaway coming off the bench and burying a backhand shot.

“We weren’t really turning the puck over, but in the third we made a couple of mistakes that ended up in our net. But other than that, I thought it was a pretty clean game. We have to continue working and cleaning up the rest of those mistakes we’re making.”

After Berni’s goal, the Lightning rebounded with power-play goals by Kucherov and Brayden Point, and added an even-strength goal from Ross Colton.

But allowing a third goal after a Kucherov turnover in the neutral zone gave Kirill Marchenko a breakaway that he converted on his second-shot opportunity didn’t sit well in the end. After Marchenko’s goal, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (20 saves) broke his stick in frustration.

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“Did we improve on some of the things we wanted to improve on?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Yeah, we took a heck of a lot less penalties (Tuesday) But our goal is to win the hockey game, and our goal is to make sure our team is playing as best we possibly can.

“And I thought a lot of the things we did (Tuesday) were excellent. But you watch some of the goals go into the net like they did (Tuesday), just how we played them with an urgency in some situations, I think we can get a little bit better than that.”

After losing two of three on their just-completed road trip, the Lightning halted their skid back at home. They won their eighth straight home game and improved to 16-4-1 at Amalie Arena this season. They host Vancouver Thursday before a five-game trip takes them to St. Louis and Seattle, and through western Canada.

“We knew that wasn’t our best showing on the road, and we’ve got to get back to our hockey,” Paul said. “We can’t be giving up points like that. It all starts at home, and then going onto the road. So this week’s a big week for us. Really getting back to playing a full 60 minutes, not turning pucks over, coming together as a group and just playing as a team.”

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