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Burns: 3 Things we learned from continued domination over Chicago

Beat writer Bryan Burns recaps Tampa Bay's 4-2 victory over Chicago on Thursday

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

If there's one thing you can count on from recent Tampa Bay Lightning history, it's regular season wins over the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Lightning extended their win streak over Chicago to eight games and their regular season point streak against the Blackhawks to 16 games (14-0-2) following a gutty 4-2 win at the United Center Thursday, even without superstar forwards Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, who didn't play the second or third periods after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first.

Tampa Bay picked up its first win over a Central Division opponent this season after striking out in its first four attempts.

"It was a team effort," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's good to see the guys get rewarded."

Thursday's win was one of the more satisfying efforts of the season for the Lightning.

Here's how they did it.

Video: Mikhail Sergachev on the road victory over Chicago

1. NEXT MAN UP
Tampa Bay was already shorthanded entering Thursday's game with Nikita Kucherov unable to go after sustaining an upper-body injury in the loss at St. Louis Tuesday.

After a period of play, the Lightning lost another one of their superstars when Steven Stamkos couldn't continue for the second or third periods after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first and playing just 5:17.

"He aggravated something early on," Cooper said. "He hung in there and we were, in case we got, basically we got that one power play and he felt he was going to be okay and sat on the bench too long in the second."

The Lightning had already decided on an 11 forward/7 defenseman alignment for the Chicago contest to make up for Kucherov's absence, inserting Cory Conacher into the lineup to make his season debut. Now down to 10 forwards, a gritty effort by the remaining healthy players guided the Lightning to victory.

"We had a player leave for a bathroom break, so then we were down nine," Cooper quipped.

With players double shifting regularly, the Lightning simplified their game, focusing on limiting turnovers, making smart plays and defending fiercely in front of backup goalie Curtis McElhinney.

"You can't replace those guys, you just can't. They're world-class players," Brayden Point said of not having Kucherov or Stamkos in Chicago. "It takes a lot of effort, and I thought we competed, we played hard, we played simple. Early we turned pucks over, and I thought we got better as the game went on."

Point was one of the leaders of the Lightning's shorthanded effort. His goal at 12:23 of the third, courtesy of a beautifully-sauced pass from Ondrej Palat, extended Tampa Bay's lead to 3-1 and proved to be the game-winner. Point has scored the game-winning goal in the Bolts' last three victories over Chicago.

Tampa Bay's fourth line helped pick up the slack too, the combination of Pat Maroon, Cedric Paquette and Yanni Gourde continuing to make an impact on the game every shift and making a strong case for best fourth line in the NHL.

"We were short guys, but we had guys step up, guys like Ceddy, his line, a lot of blocked shots, a lot of zone time for them, creating energy for us," Point said.

But, really, it was the whole team that picked up their play in the absence of two of their best players.

"I liked what I saw from everybody tonight," Cooper said.

Stamkos too liked what he saw. The Lightning captain remained on the bench for the final two periods, despite his injury, because he wanted to be there for his teammates.

"We gave him the option to leave the game, and he didn't want to do it," Cooper said. "He wanted to hang out with his teammates on the bench and cheer them on. I thought that was a big move for him and us."

Video: TBL@CHI: Cirelli tips Hedman's shot past Crawford 

2. THE QUICK RESPONSE
Up 1-0 for most of the game following Mikhail Sergachev's power-play blast from the point for his first goal of the season at 16:10 of the opening period, the Lightning did a fantastic job protecting their lead.

The Bolts disrupted shots by lifting sticks and diving into shooting lanes. They cleared rebounds away from their own net before any Blackhawks could pounce on them. They kept the net front clear, allowing McElhinney to see everything coming his way.

Tampa Bay did everything it could to prevent good scoring chances.

And then the Blackhawks scored on a fluky goal 8:27 into the third period when Brent Seabrook took the puck down low to the goal line and from a severe angle threw a puck on net that hit McElhinney's mask and bounced in.

That could have been a demoralizing turning point for the Lightning.

Instead, it turned into a galvanizing moment.

With the crowd really into the game for the first time all night, the Lightning quieted them a couple shifts later, Victor Hedman getting the puck with time and space in the slot and firing a wrist shot that Anthony Cirelli tipped into the net to re-establish the Bolts' lead just 1:17 after Seabrook took it from them.

Cirelli scored his fourth goal of the season and extended his goal streak to three games, the second-year pro starting to heat up after a slow scoring start to the season.

"The irony is it's Cirelli that gets it after he really had the good chance earlier that he hit the post," Cooper said. "That was the one thing was, our bench was fantastic tonight. When they scored, there was calm on the bench, and the guys were like, 'Let's just go on the next shift.' It's a little bit of a deflator when you give one up right after you tied it. But I thought they earned it. I thought they earned it throughout the night, and they got rewarded."

The Lightning could have let losing the lead deflate them, but it just made their resolve that much stronger.

"That was huge," Point said. "The crowd got into it after they scored. You could see it on that shift they were flying. To be able to go back up one is huge. It's a great forecheck by our guys, Heddy takes the shot, crash the net, get a tip and it squeaks in."

Video: Balanced attack leads Lightning past Blackhawks, 4-2

3. McELHINNEY SETTLING IN
It would have been easy for Cooper to give Andrei Vasilevskiy the start for the fourth-consecutive game considering the defending Vezina Trophy winner was 4-0-0 for his career in the regular season against Chicago and had given up just eight total goals to the Hawks.

But the Lightning head coach knew he needed to get Curtis McElhinney some work considering his last start came in Sweden in the second half of the back-to-back Global Series set versus the Sabres and he would need the veteran backup later next week when the Bolts play a home-and-road back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.

McElhinney rewarded his head coach's trust with a superb effort, blocking 32-of-34 shots and shutting out the Blackhawks over the first two periods to backstop the Lightning to a victory and earn Third Star honors. His teammates in front did a superb job shutting down the Blackhawks and holding them to just a couple Grade-A opportunities. McElhinney was outstanding too, looking calm, cool and collected in net and showing no rust from going 12 days without a start.

"He's had some tough starts with us on some back-to-backs and until the end of the game, I thought we defended well in front of him," Cooper said.

After starting his Lightning career 0-1-2, through no fault of his own, McElhinney has picked up three-consecutive wins and has provided the Bolts with one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL.

"Mac was huge in goal," Point said.

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