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Burns: 3 Things we learned from a season-opening victory

Lightning beat writer Bryan Burns recaps the Bolts' 2-1 shootout victory over the Panthers on Opening Night

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning had waited four-and-a-half months to get back on the ice for a meaningful game following last season's Game 7 loss to the Washington Capitals.

Only fitting then that the Lightning gave the capacity crowd at AMALIE Arena some extra hockey in a 2-1 shootout win over the in-state rival Florida Panthers.

Tampa Bay overcame a sluggish first period to level the score midway through the third period on Anthony Cirelli's sixth career NHL goal. And after a scoreless overtime session, J.T. Miller and Nikita Kucherov both converted their shootout attempts while Mike Hoffman and Aleksander Barkov were denied on theirs to seal the victory for the Lightning, their fifth-straight win in a season opener.

To be sure, there's plenty for the Lightning to clean up. Their play in the first period was uninspired. Getting the puck out of their own zone was an adventure at times. Passing was not crisp, and the Bolts committed way too many turnovers.

Fortunately, they'll have four days to work on those deficiencies before playing their next game Thursday at home versus Vancouver.

So what did we learn from Saturday's season-opening win?

We'll take a deeper look in Three Things from the shootout victory.

Video: McDonagh on his first home opener with the Bolts

How many times could I have written that header last year?

Not too many

The penalty kill was a sore spot for the Lightning last season after finishing 28th in the NHL last season.

But the Bolts vowed to correct the problem in the offseason, and, at least so far, the early returns were positive.

Tampa Bay went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill in the season opener against Florida and was responsible for producing the team's lone goal when Anthony Cirelli broke free for a 2-on-1 odd-man rush, had his pass deflected by Aleksander Barkov -- the lone skater retreating for the Panthers -- and recovered to scoop the puck past Florida goalie James Reimer, in after Roberto Luongo left midway through the game with a lower-body injury.

"I think our best penalty killer too was probably Vasy," Lightning rookie Mathieu Joseph, making his NHL debut on Saturday, said. "He made some key saves out there tonight. It was good to see him make those key saves on PK. I think we built a little momentum from that since we scored on that PK. That kind of gave us a boost for the rest of the game."

The Lightning penalty kill was tested often, particularly in the third period when the Lightning took three penalties to stymie the momentum they had been building offensively. Fortunately, the penalty kill bailed them out and provided the spark needed to rally against the Panthers.

"The Achilles heel tonight is you can't take three penalties in the third period," Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said. "We just sucked the life out of ourselves and every time we're trying to get it back then there was another penalty. It just went back to kind of falling back into a trap and not skating, turning pucks over... that's what happens. It's something we obviously have to address now. In saying that, a much-maligned penalty kill from last year for tonight kept them off the board and got the goal to push us to overtime, so a positive to take from that."

Video: FLA@TBL: Vasilevskiy denies Barkov in the shootout

Andrei Vasilevskiy had a record-setting season for the Lightning in 2017-18 after collecting 44 wins, including eight shutouts, and finishing third in voting for the Vezina Trophy.

If Saturday's performance is any indication, he's looking to put up even better numbers in 2018-19.

After giving up a goal nearly six minutes into the game when Jacob MacDonald, playing his first NHL game, scored on an open shot from the left circle, Vasilevskiy settled into the game quite well.

And it was a good thing too because the Panthers put up 43 shots in total against Vasilevskiy.

He stopped 42 of them, and then tacked on two more saves in the shootout for good measure.

"When you have someone like that back there, we know we can be more aggressive and he'll bail us out," Cirelli said.

Vasilevskiy was at his best in the 3-on-3 overtime period. Twice the Panthers were able to put a puck behind him. Neither one went in. On the first, Vasilevskiy made the initial stop but couldn't find the puck as it sat underneath him. Before the Panthers could hop on the loose puck, though, Vasilevskiy rolled onto his back to trap it. On the second, Vasilevskiy again slowed a Grade-A scoring chance and was able to clear the puck trickling behind him away from goal and out of danger.

"Vasy was pretty incredible, for Game 1 to have that focus and step up," Bolts defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "In overtime, I don't know how many chances they had. It was great to see him really sharp for Game 1 and was definitely the main reason why we got the two points."

Video: Joseph on his first NHL game 

The first 20 minutes of Saturday's season opener produced next to nothing positive for the Lightning.

They fell behind 1-0 on MacDonald's goal. Cedric Paquette got his hand stepped on by a skate during his second shift and spent the remainder of the period in the locker room. He somehow avoided serious injury and was able to return for the second. The Lightning passed up several scoring chances looking for a better one and ended up with nothing to show for it. And the Panthers were buzzing around the Lightning goal, opening up a 16-4 shot advantage after 20 minutes.

Following the game, Cooper was asked if he felt his team played better from the second period on.

"I have so many answers to that that I'll save for when the mic's off," Cooper joked. "Clearly, we weren't skating in the first period. For whatever the reasons were, they were much better. They were beating us to pucks. I think we had a really good second period. We took the play to them. Scoring chances were probably 3-1 for us. We couldn't find the back of the net, but I like the way we're playing."

After the Lightning got their Opening Night jitters out of the way in the first, they came out in the second and put together a solid period of hockey. They controlled the puck throughout and had several great scoring chances but were just missing that moment of composure in the critical moment to score.

The Lightning started the third period well too, but the numerous penalties took away the momentum they'd built offensively.

That is, until Cirelli was able to break through on the penalty kill.

"We have a lot of offensive weapons on this team," Cirelli said. "We just had to keep getting pucks to the net."

The Lightning were able to overcome a sloppy start to the game Saturday, but they'll need to clean up those errors to prevent a similar scenario from playing out in the future.

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