Heading into the opening game of their first round series against the New Jersey Devils, the Tampa Bay Lightning boasted a combined 1,152 games worth of Stanley Cup playoff experience. Against a team looking to pull off an upset that swept them in the regular season, it was paramount that the Lightning tapped into that experience and get off to a quick start. Thanks to a few guys who have come up big in past playoff years, along with some new faces, the Lightning find themselves in the driver’s seat.
Five different players tallied goals for the Lightning, Andrei Vasilevskiy made 29 saves, and Tampa Bay jumped out to an early two-goal lead that held up in a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils at Amalie Arena. As a result, the Bolts own a 1-0 lead in this Eastern Conference first round best-of-seven series. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper stated that it was a huge boost for his team to go up 2-0 in the opening period of the game.
“I thought it was a big confidence builder for our guys to be able to get two, I know we gave up one to them, but we kinda gift-wrapped that one,” said Cooper. “It was a big lift for our games, especially first playoff game, first period, going up 2-0 was big.”
That 2-0 Lightning lead was achieved by a pair of past playoff heroes who have come up big time and time again in the postseason.
Right from the get-go, the Lightning were the faster, more energized team in the opening 20 minutes. Their playoff experience showed as they overwhelmed New Jersey at times. Most of the pressure came from the team’s second, third, and fourth lines. They consistently kept the Devils on their heels with a vicious forecheck. Yanni Gourde generated a couple of great chances, including one where he deked Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid and went to the forehand on a 2-on-1, only to lose control of the puck.
Eventually, the Lightning’s hard work paid off when Ondrej Palat put them up 1-0. Tyler Johnson’s work on the forecheck led to a pass in the slot to Palat. Palat made a couple of moves before putting a backhand past Kinkaid with five minutes left in the period. New Jersey conjured up a few solid looks of their own late in the period, only to see Vasilevskiy turn them aside. The line of Johnson, Brayden Point, and Palat came through again in the final minute of the period. They forced a turnover deep in New Jersey’s zone, with Point dishing the puck to Palat. Palat promptly fed it in front to Johnson, who zipped a shot into the net with 28.5 seconds left on the clock. Palat and Johnson, both key playoff performers in the past for the Lightning, had set the tone early in this game.
“They find a way. They’ve done it before. Ultimately, it’s the reason they’ve been with us for a long time,” said Cooper. They do produce in the playoffs, there’s no question, but they produce for us in the regular season as well. It’s a little bit more magnified here. But those guys are winners. They’re gamers. In the playoffs, they definitely find a way.”
After coming very close to finding the back of the net in the first, Gourde finally cashed in early in the second.
Merely five seconds into the period, Miles Wood took a slashing penalty, giving the Lightning their first power play of the series. With time winding down on the man-advantage, Mikhail Sergachev fired a shot on net from the point. The puck bounced off the end boards, where it was corralled by Palat at the side of the net. However, he couldn’t control it, so he kicked it across the crease to Gourde. Gourde proceeded to slam it into the open side of the net for his first career playoff goal, and the Lightning were up 3-0 at 1:54.
The Devils slowly adjusted to the pace of the game, testing Vasilevskiy more often, only to see him come up with a few key saves. At the 9:28 mark, Point went to the box for tripping, putting the Lightning’s much-maligned penalty killing unit on the ice. Thanks in part to Vasilevskiy, they came up huge while also aided by key shot blocks from Ryan McDonagh and Anthony Cirelli.
Although the penalty kill came up big for the Bolts, the Devils built off that, throwing more shots on net while the Lightning still had their surges. New Jersey finally got on the board with 6:05 left on the clock, thanks to a terrible turnover by Palat. Instead of going up the boards, Palat sent an ill-advised pass up the middle. Taylor Hall pounced on it and immediately whipped a shot past Vasilevskiy for his first career playoff goal. The Devils pushed back with some more jump thanks to that goal, ending the period with a 26-20 shot edge through 40 minutes, including a 15-7 mark in the second period.
The Lightning clamped down defensively early in the third period, but a power play briefly put the Devils back in the game.
When the Bolts’ J.T. Miller took a questionable slashing penalty 9:11 into the third, New Jersey had yet to register a shot on goal in the final period. However, that man-advantage opportunity was all the Devils needed to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 3-2. Hall took a pass from Will Butcher and slipped a pass to Travis Zajac in the slot. Zajac redirected it past Vasilevskiy 24 seconds after the power play began.
However, the Lightning refused to let that goal rattle them. They kept their composure, and at the 12:14 mark, Alex Killorn, another player known for his playoff heroics, struck for Tampa Bay. The play began when Gourde got his stick on a pass and started off a 3-on-2 rush the other way. Gourde found Killorn trailing the play with a pass as Cirelli set up a screen in front. Killorn proceeded to fire a laser beam of a shot past Kinkaid to make it 4-2 Lightning. New Jersey only mustered up two more shots the rest of the way, and with 1:12 remaining, Nikita Kucherov put the game on ice with an empty net goal.
“When you get into playoff team, it’s never one team that dominates the other,” said Cooper. “There’s gonna be waves, there’s gonna be speed bumps, it’s how you weather those times. You have a three-goal lead, you give up two, it’s 3-2 how are you gonna weather that? Well, you get the next one. That’s what we did. I like a lot of what we did tonight. The guys stuck with it, and when a little adversity hit, they rallied. That’s why we won.”
The Lightning return to action against the Devils on Saturday for Game 2. Puck drops at 3 pm with live national coverage on NBC.
-Gourde, Point, and Sergachev each notched their first career playoff points.
-This was New Jersey’s first playoff game since Game 6 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. They lost that series in six games to Los Angeles.
-The Lightning improved their record in playoff openers to 3-7. They are now 9-12 all-time in Game 1 of a playoff series.
-Palat’s goal was his 15th career postseason tally, while Johnson scored the 22nd playoff goal of his career.
-Johnson also moved past Kucherov into a fourth place on the Bolts’ in all-time postseason points with 44.
-The Lightning out-shot the Devils 32-31.
Our Three Stars of the Game
1st Star: Yanni Gourde – One goal, one assist and produced several quality chances. Probably could have scored four goals. His line with Killorn and Cirelli was unstoppable.
2nd Star: Ondrej Palat – One goal, two assists. His line with Johnson and Point also gave the Devils a ton of problems at both ends of the ice.
3rd Star: Tyler Johnson – One goal, one assist. His goal in the final minute of the first period gave the Lightning a crucial two-goal lead going into the first intermission.
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