Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have largely struggled to put together any sort of sustained run of wins that could get them back into a playoff spot. We’ve seen this team struggle during the month of December in the past, only to see them rebound in January and go on extended winning streaks to turn their season around. Following a visit from the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena on New Year’s Eve, Tampa Bay looks like they could be repeating history by closing out 2016 on a high note.
Jonathan Drouin and Brian Boyle scored first period power play goals to power the Bolts to a 2-0 lead, Andrei Vasilevskiy finished with 26 saves, and Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman each had two assists as the Lightning (19-15-4) topped the Hurricanes (16-13-7) 3-1 in each team’s final game of 2016. Alex Killorn notched the Bolts’ other goal, while Matthew Peca earned his first NHL point with an assist on Killorn’s goal. It was Tampa Bay’s fourth win in their last six games, and the second win on their current five-game homestand, one in which they’ve already gotten five points. Unfortunately for the Bolts, the injury bug may have struck again, as Boyle left the game before the start of the third period with an undisclosed lower body injury, which happened on the same night that Vlad Namestnikov returned to the lineup after missing Thursday’s game against Toronto.
We’ve talked about how the Lightning have struggled time and time again to get off to fast starts, but this wasn’t one of those nights, as they came out flying in the opening period, dominating in all three zones and in all phases of the game. They outshot the Hurricanes 12-6 and notched that pair of power play goals that came against the NHL’s top-ranked penalty killing unit. At the 7:01 mark, the Lightning got their first power play when Ondrej Palat drove to the net and drew a tripping penalty on Carolina’s Noah Hanifin. Just 34 seconds later, Boyle tallied his 10th goal of the season when he drove to the net and deposited a rebound into the back of the net after a Nikita Kucherov shot was stopped by Canes goalie Cam Ward, who finished with 22 saves. Kucherov and Victor Hedman earned the assists as the Bolts went up 1-0.
Tampa Bay’s Anton Stralman took a tripping penalty while trying to break up a 2-on-1, giving Carolina a power play at the 12:53 mark, but it was the Bolts who nearly took advantage despite being shorthanded, as Tyler Johnson found himself on a breakaway. Ward was up to the task in turning Johnson’s shot aside. The Lightning continued to control play for the remainder of the period, as Hedman nearly made it 2-0 with a shot off the crossbar. With 2:13 remaining, the Hurricanes were called for too many men on the ice, and then with 47.5 seconds left, Viktor Stalberg went to the box for hooking, giving the Bolts a 5-on-3. Despite not registering any shots on goal with the two-man advantage, Drouin put the Lightning up 2-0 with a power play goal with 9.6 seconds left on the clock, as he rifled a laser beam of a wrist shot from the left circle for his 11th of the season as Kucherov and Palat earned the helpers.
The second period saw a slight reversal in momentum, as Carolina began to find their legs and create opportunities. They outshot the Lightning 12-7 in the period, most notably highlighted by three breakaway chances, as well as a couple of early power plays they were unable to take advantage of. Tampa Bay had their share of chances, though, most notably when a shot by Andrej Sustr from the point was deflected in front of the net by Johnson, only to see it fly high up into the netting above the boards. Derek Ryan found himself on the Canes’ first breakaway chance, with Matthew Peca pursuing him and nearly breaking it up. Ryan ran out of real estate as he tried to deke Vasilevkisy, with the Lightning goal easily able to make the save. A couple of minutes later Joakim Nordstrom cut around Slater Koekkoek and found himself in alone on Vasilevskiy, who had to make a little more of an effort this time around to turn the puck aside. Tampa Bay would take advantage of the missed Carolina opportunities, as Killorn notched his 12th goal of the season off assists from Peca and Hedman. Peca outworked a Carolina defender along the boards and got the puck to Killorn, who’s backhander from in close beat Ward to put the Lightning up 3-0 at the 13:32 mark.
The third time would be the charm for the Hurricanes on breakaways, as they got on the board at the 15:20 mark to cut the Lightning’s lead to 3-1. Rookie Sebastian Aho got behind the Lightning’s defense and collected a long stretch pass from Jaccob Slavin before flying in, deking to his backhand, and beating Vasilevskiy for his seventh goal of the season off of assists from Slavin and Teuvo Teravainen. Kucherov and Palat nearly combined for a beautiful goal late in the period when Kucherov wheeled around behind the net and fed Palat in front, only for Ward to make the save.
Carolina held a 9-6 edge in shots on goal in the final period and made a big push to get back in the game, only to be turned aside multiple times by Vasilevskiy. At the 3:46 mark, Killorn went to the penalty box for holding, giving Carolina a power play where they held the puck in the Lightning’s zone for nearly the entire time. Despite the fact they had several quality chances, Vasilevskiy was the difference in keeping the Hurricanes from closing the gap on the scoreboard. Tampa Bay had a couple more solid looks later in the period, most notably from Kucherov, who had a big one-timer from the slot denied by Ward. Carolina pulled Ward with three minutes left, but they were unable to put any more pucks in the net. With seven seconds remaining Carolina put in their emergency backup, Jorge Alves, who is also the team’s equipment manager. Alves suited up to be Ward’s backup due to the fact that Ward’s backup Eddie Lack was a late scratch due to an illness. Soon after, the horn sounded, and the Lightning found themselves on the right side of the scoreboard to close out 2016.
Tampa Bay will continue their homestand on Tuesday, January 3 when they host the Winnipeg Jets at Amalie Arena in their first game of 2017. Puck drops at 7:30 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Jonathan Drouin – Scored the game-winning goal with 9.6 seconds remaining in the first period on a power play, giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead. Finished with three shots on goal in 13:48 of ice time.
2nd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Wasn’t too busy early on, but from the middle portion of the second period onward, he was rock solid, finishing with 26 saves while picking up his 10th win of the season.
3rd Star: Nikita Kucherov – Ended the night with a pair of primary assists and finished tied for the team lead with four shots on goal in 17:47 of ice time.