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Penalty killers, Vasilevskiy, and late Girardi goal propel Lightning to victory

Despite winning eight of their previous nine games entering Saturday’s contest against the Minnesota Wild, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s penalty killers had struggled recently. Since shutting out St. Louis 3-0 on December 12, the Lightning surrendered at least one power play goal in their last four games.

Against a Wild team playing the second end of a back-to-back, the Lightning’s penalty killers, along with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, came up huge. Vasilevskiy stopped all 22 shots he faced and the Lightning (26-7-2) killed off all six Minnesota power plays in a 3-0 win over the Wild (18-15-3) at Amalie Arena.

A tight-checking 0-0 hockey game through the first 57 minutes saw the Lightning explode for all three of their goals in a 1:19 span in the final 3 minutes of the game. Dan Girardi earned the game-winner with 2:42 left, Tyler Johnson scored his ninth of the season just 52 seconds later, and Nikita Kucherov sealed it with an empty net goal. Alex Stalock finished with 28 saves for the Wild, who have now lost four of five since a four-game winning streak. Although the Lightning’s penalty kill came up big, their power play short-circuited, also finishing 0-for-6.

“In a game where there was tons of special teams, the penalty kill really responded. I’m very proud of those guys,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “The PP on the other hand struggled. But when one struggles, the other can pick them up in a game. Everyone on the PK, including Vasy, did an outstanding job, gave us a chance to make a play at the end.”

Both teams experienced big momentum shifts early on, combining to go 0-for-4 on the power play in the first period.

Although Minnesota controlled play in the opening couple of minutes, the Lightning would reverse the ice in their favor and dominate puck possession for much of the opening period. This included a pair of power plays for the Bolts that saw some quality looks. However, they weren’t able to dent the back of the net. Tyler Johnson took Alex Killorn’s place on the top power play unit, nearly resulting in a goal for Johnson.

The Wild tilted the ice back in their favor in the last six minutes of the period thanks to a pair of power play chances that came up empty. However, it wasn’t without some scary moments for Tampa Bay. Vasilevskiy gave the puck away behind his net, but Girardi showed up to save the day. He knocked the puck away from the crease before the Wild could take advantage. After rolling out to a 10-1 lead in shots on goal, the Bolts held a 12-10 edge in that category at the first intermission.

Following that period, the game turned into a tight-checking affair with a lot of special teams play.

Minnesota earned a man-advantage opportunity when Nikita Kucherov was sent to the box for holding just 42 seconds into the second period. However, Vasilevskiy was up to the task, making a top-notch save on Mikael Granlund at the side of the crease. Tampa Bay’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vlad Namestnikov generated some quality looks that came up empty. Minnesota came up short on two more power play chances, while the Lightning failed to score on another two chances at 5-on-4. Each team’s best opportunities this period occurred at 5-on-5, as Kucherov rang a shot off the post late in the period. Before that, the Wild’s Charlie Coyle cut in alone after the puck jumped over Anton Stralman’s stick, only to be robbed twice by Vasilevskiy at point-blank range. According to Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, that play was a microcosm of this game.

He joked, “Do you remember an odd-man rush? I think the only one might have been the one that hopped over Stralman’s stick. Other than that, there was no odd-mans, a lot of special teams, though. It was a strange game.”

The Lightning began to control play in the third, but couldn’t pounce on a golden opportunity.

The Lightning and Wild found themselves able to open things up a bit more in the third period. Although there was a little more back and forth action in the early portion of the period, the Lightning got the better of puck possession. They nearly caught a break when Stalock lost his stick for an extended shift in Minnesota’s zone, but the Bolts couldn’t take advantage. Vasilevskiy also came through in that time with a nice save on a shot from the low slot by Chris Stewart.

With 11:49 left on the clock, Wild captain Mikko Koivu took a slashing penalty, giving the Lightning yet another power play. During the man-advantage, Minnesota’s Ryan Suter twice flipped Johnson’s stick out of his hands. Following the second stick flip, he went to the box for interference, giving the Lightning a two-man advantage for 1:09. Despite the tremendous opportunity to notch the game’s first goal, Tampa Bay came up empty. A few minutes later, the Lightning’s Mikhail Sergachev went to the penalty box for slashing, but Minnesota also couldn’t take advantage.

With the clock winding down in a scoreless game that appeared headed for overtime, Tampa Bay finally broke through.

Brayden Point gathered the puck in the Lightning’s zone and took off, weaving his way through a maze of players into the Minnesota zone. Ending up on the left wing, he threaded a spectacular pass through traffic. Girardi cut down the middle of the ice and was the beneficiary, firing it home for his second goal of the season with 2:42 remaining.

Only 52 seconds later, Jake Dotchin kept the puck in the Wild’s zone and dished it to Johnson in the right circle. He whirled around at the faceoff dot and ripped a blistering shot that beat Stalock glove side, putting the Lightning up 2-0. Kucherov’s empty net goal with 52.4 seconds left put the final bow on an early Christmas present for Lightning fans. Cooper had nothing but kudos for his team’s penalty killing unit after the game.

“We calmed down. The past few games we’ve been running around, and we made a couple of adjustments,” said Cooper. “It’s a matter of, ‘If you have to block a shot, you gotta block a shot.’ You can’t depend on the goalie all the time. I thought we had good sticks, we were in lanes. We didn’t really let them get in clean, so they didn’t have a ton of time in the zone.”

The Bolts will be off until next Thursday when they host the Montreal Canadiens at Amalie Arena. Puck drops at 7:30 pm.

Game Notes

-Since going without a goal in 15 straight games, Johnson has tallied points (5 goals, 9 assists) in the last nine games he’s played in. He missed the team’s game in Vegas due to the flu.

-Kucherov’s point streak now sits at seven games.

-Girardi also tallied an assist on Kucherov’s goal, giving him just his second multi-point game in a Lightning uniform.

-In four career starts against Minnesota, Vasilevskiy has surrendered just four goals.

-The home team has won the last ten meetings between the Lightning and the Wild. The last time a road team has won a game in this head-to-head series was a 3-1 Lightning win at Minnesota on April 2, 2011.

Three Stars of the Game

1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Made 22 saves for his 4th shutout of the season. Didn’t have to make many big saves, but came up big when he had to.

2nd Star: Dan Girardi – Scored the game-winning goal late in the third period.

3rd Star: Tyler Johnson – Stretched his personal point streak to nine games and scored the Lightning’s second goal.


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