Lightning find playoff form in statement win over Hurricanes

Andrei Vasilevskiy records 31 saves and Tampa Bay scores some greasy goals and locks down late.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his goal against the Hurricanes with Mikhail Sergachev (98) and Victor Hedman (77) during the second period of Tuesday night's game in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Lightning won, 4-0.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his goal against the Hurricanes with Mikhail Sergachev (98) and Victor Hedman (77) during the second period of Tuesday night's game in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Lightning won, 4-0. [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]
Published March 29|Updated March 29

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Lightning know the recipe to winning, which is why it has been frustrating for them to see the root of their second-half struggles this season. They know how keeping the puck out of their own net, being patient and grinding out games is the key to postseason success.

Over the past two games, they seem to have finally tapped into that formula. And in Tuesday’s commanding 4-0 win over Carolina at PNC Arena — a victory that snapped the Lightning’s four-game losing streak — their long-proven “process over outcome” mantra was never any truer.

On Saturday night, the Lightning felt like they turned a corner in Boston. They lost to the Bruins 2-1, but they captured a physical style of play they had been lacking. They played well defensively, and a couple of unlucky goals doomed them. But they went into Tuesday’s meeting with Carolina knowing it was important to build on that momentum and not take a step back.

The Hurricanes are hell to play. They apply pressure relentlessly, making manufacturing any kind of offense difficult. They take away space, especially in the middle of the ice. The key to surviving them is having patience.

“It definitely turned the tables from the last time we were here,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

The Lightning’s last visit to PNC Arena might have been their low point to the season. A day after Cooper benched the team’s top offensive stars — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov — in an embarrassing loss in Buffalo, the Lightning showed little spark against the Hurricanes, losing 6-0 to Carolina.

In Tuesday night’s return trip, Cooper tested out some new line combinations, reuniting Stamkos with Point and Kucherov on the top line, and even sat struggling left-shot defenseman Ian Cole, a move he said was a coach’s decision.

The Lightning’s top line had no shots on goal in the first period, but Stamkos and Point came through with some blue-collar goals that gave Tampa Bay the boost it desperately needed. Point’s goal came after he chased down a rolling puck behind the goal line and banked it off the back of Carolina goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov’s glove and into the net, giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead with 5:37 left in the second,

After that, the Lightning were in control.

“That’s the hockey that you got to play at this time of the year and that’s something maybe we’ve been guilty of not doing is pressing too much and turning the puck over,” Stamkos said.

“That was another thing. We didn’t give them much I thought, in the second and third. So just a solid effort. We know what the recipe is. It’s just about executing it and the last couple of games, we’ve executed it.”

Playing a pair of road games against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning allowed just two total goals. On Tuesday night, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded 31 saves, including 14 in the third period, for his third shutout of the season.

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“It’s all about defending your net,” Cooper said. “And that’s how we’ve got to play if we want to do anything you know in the spring.

Point scored twice, his second goal ringing in and out of the goal with 7:43 left in regulation, putting the Lightning up 3-0 and silencing a raucous home crowd that was energized by some board-rattling hits and dustups late in the second period and early in the third.

The Lightning (43-26-6, 92 points) didn’t have many chances. They had just 21 shots on goal on the night, but took advantage of the ones they got, and the team’s big guns shined against Carolina (47-17-9, 103 points). Point, Stamkos and Kucherov combined for eight points.

After pinging a shot off the left corner post in the first period, Stamkos broke the scoreless tie moments after the Lightning’s first power play expired 5:58 into the second period, taking a pass from Mikhail Sergachev below the left circle and sliding a shot under Kochetkov’s right pad.

“Scoring against these guys is tough,” Point said. “They play you really tight. They don’t give you a lot of rushes. And it’s tough. So I think just sticking with it was important and it was good to see Stammer get us going. I think it’ll give us a little bit of a life.”

After Alex Killorn’s empty net goal with 4:21 left in regulation, the Hurricanes fans flooded to the exits of PNC Arena.

“I thought probably we didn’t get the fate that we wanted to in Boston,” Stamkos said. “But we talked about process over outcome and tonight was a good example of getting the outcome because of the process. This is a tough rink to come into and they’re a very good team and we knew what happened last time we came in here, too. I thought we just played a really solid, patient, physical, in-your-face style of game and we got rewarded tonight.”

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