Entering the 2017-18 season, one could make a strong case that this was a make-or-break season for Slater Koekkoek. The Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman spent the second half of last season in the AHL and only got three minutes of ice time in the team’s previous game.
On Thursday night, Koekkoek made his case to get a lot more ice time.
The 2012 first round pick scored the first two goals of his NHL career, including the eventual game-winner in the second period. The goals propelled the Lightning (3-1-0) to a huge 5-4 victory over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 36 saves on 40 shots while Alex Killorn tallied four assists. Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos scored the other goals for the Bolts. One could be confused for thinking the calendar read May instead of October. The intensity was sky-high at Amalie Arena throughout the entire evening.
An entertaining opening period started off on a high note with the Lightning swarming the Penguins early on. Most notably, the line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Yanni Gourde continued to confound the opposition with their speed and forechecking.
The Bolts took a 1-0 lead when Koekkoek broke the ice at the 6:07 mark. Corralling a bouncing puck at the blue line, he took a shot that deflected off the stick of Tom Kuhnhackl. The deflection trickled through Pens goalie Antti Niemi’s legs for Koekkoek’s first NHL goal in his 43rd game.
Both teams traded quality chances until Dan Girardi took a tripping penalty, giving Pittsburgh their first power play chance. The Pens generated some extended offensive zone time, but tied the game 1-1 after the power play ended. Jake Guentzel deflected Kris Letang’s shot into the net for his second goal of the year with 6:14 left on the clock.
Pittsburgh appeared to have tied the game with 2:03 left following a Lightning power play. During a goal mouth scramble, Patric Hornqvist appeared to tie the game up. However, the goal was immediately waived off by referee Tim Peel for kicking it into the net. After a short video review, the call on the ice stood. Just 42 seconds later, Letang went to the penalty box for shooting the puck over the glass, putting the Bolts on the man advantage.
Kucherov and Stamkos each nearly scored, but it was Hedman’s goal at the last possible millisecond of the period that put the Bolts up 2-1, as his shot from the point bounced off of Niemi’s glove and in the net. The officials reviewed the goal, and replays confirmed it went in just before the buzzer went off.
If the first period could be considered entertaining hockey, then the second period was an absolute blitzkrieg.
Both teams combined for five goals in the middle stanza, with Stamkos beginning the madness. Just 3:49 into the period on a power play, Stamkos set up low in the left circle and one-timed a pass from Vlad Namestnikov past Niemi for a 3-1 lead.
About four-and-a-half minutes later, Gourde rang a shot off the post and Namestnikov couldn’t score on a breakaway. Pittsburgh immediately found themselves on a breakaway of their own, with Conor Sheary beating Vasilevskiy to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 3-2. Only 51 seconds later, Kucherov fired a laser beam of a wrist shot into the far side top corner to restore the Bolts’ two-goal lead.
Bryan Rust would get another goal back for the Penguins, depositing a rebound in the slot past Vasilevskiy on a power play to cut the Bolts’ lead to 4-3. Koekkoek found himself in the penalty box for a very questionable tripping call with 4:15 remaining in the period. As Koekkoek jumped out of the box as the power play ended, he found himself on a 3-on-1 rush with Killorn and Tyler Johnson on a delayed penalty to the Penguins.
A tic-tac-toe passing play led to Koekkoek backhanding a shot through Niemi and putting Tampa Bay up 5-3 and sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
While the Lightning got the better of 5-on-5 play for the first two periods, the Penguins turned the tables and dominated much of the puck possession in the third.
Vasilevskiy robbed Hornqvist with a big kick save early on, while Stamkos missed the chance to extend the Lightning’s lead to three goals. The Lightning captain had Niemi beat on a breakaway, but missed the net. Pittsburgh would close the deficit to 5-4 when Matt Hunwick knocked home a rebound into the net from the left circle with 9:59 left on the clock.
The Penguins outshot the Bolts 12-6 in the third period, but Vasilevskiy was up to the task down the stretch. Of his saves in the final 20 minutes, his save on Guentzel on a breakaway stood out, followed by a save on Sidney Crosby from the high slot. The Penguins continued to put pressure on, with Evgeni Malkin missing from in close.
Pittsburgh would pull Niemi, and in the dying seconds, Palat came up with a crucial shot block to help preserve the win.
Following two back-to-back statement wins over two of the marquee teams in the NHL, the Lightning look to close out their homestand on a high note on Saturday night. They’ll host the St. Louis Blues for the first of two meetings. Puck drops at 7 pm.
The Penguins outshot the Lightning 40-34….Tampa Bay went 2-for-5 on the power play, while Pittsburgh went 1-for-5….This was only Niemi’s second start of the season in place of Matt Murray. He stopped 29 shots….Alex Killorn’s four points are a new career-high for a single game. He previously had three games with three points, most recently on December 14, 2016 at Calgary (2 G, 1 A)….Nikita Kucherov scored for the fourth straight game this season. He now has seven points (4 G, 3 A)….Brayden Point was held without a point for the first time this season and the first time since April 4, 2016, snapping a six-game point streak.
Three Stars of the Game
1st Star: Slater Koekkoek – Scored the first two goals of his NHL career, including the game-winner
2nd Star: Alex Killorn – Set a career high with four assists
3rd Star: Nikita Kucherov – Scored one goal and added an assist
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