The Tampa Bay Lightning pushed their point streak to seven games, tied for their second longest of the season, after downing the Dallas Stars 6-2 at AMALIE Arena Wednesday.
The Lightning improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven contests and have just three more games remaining before closing out the regular season.
The Bolts pulled into a tie with idle Florida for second place in the Central Division but own the tiebreaker having played one fewer game than the Panthers. The Lightning trail first place Carolina by four points with three games to go for both teams.
Tampa Bay never trailed in Wednesday's contest and led for nearly the duration. Tyler Johnson benefitted from a blocked pass that bounced right to him wide open in the slot to net the game's opening goal just 2:14 into the contest. Tyler Seguin scored on a power play right before the break to level the score 1-1 going into the first intermission, but the Lightning went back in the lead on Alex Killorn's power-play goal at 16:39 of the second.
The Bolts stayed in front the rest of the way.
The Lightning moved to 6-1-0 this season against their 2020 Stanley Cup Final opponent with one game left to play in the season series, that coming Friday in the home finale for the Bolts at AMALIE Arena.
Since losing 7-2 in Nashville April 13, Tampa Bay has been trending in a positive direction, going 8-2-1.
The victory over Dallas was another step in the right direction as the Lightning get their game in order in preparation for the postseason.
Video: Jon Cooper | Postgame vs Stars
1. STRONG DEFENSIVE PLAY CONTINUES
Tampa Bay entered Wednesday's game having allowed just one goal total over its last three games combined.
The Lightning didn't have quite that level of success on the defensive end against Dallas, although that was to be expected considering the Stars were in a must-win scenario with its playoff hopes on life support.
The fact the Bolts limited the Stars to just two goals on 22 shots was another positive sign as the team concentrates on keeping pucks out of its own net before the playoffs. Since April 19, the Lightning are allowing just 1.89 goals per game, tied for fourth best in the NHL behind a trio of teams in Edmonton, Ottawa and the New York Islanders that are just slightly better at 1.88 goals per game.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said a few weeks ago the most important thing for his team down the stretch of the regular season would be getting back to that defense-at-all-costs approach that served his team so well during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and carried over to the beginning of the current season.
The Lightning have responded with some of their better defensive performances of the season, which should give them confidence heading into the postseason.
"We're playing pretty decent defensively," Cooper said. "To be honest though, it's our division. Our division checks. If you're not going to do that, it's going to be trouble for you. When you're playing the same teams over and over again and they've got pretty good structure in their defensive games, you've got to be on your game in that regard. So, it's probably helped us actually."
The Lightning faced another, tight-checking, structured opponent Wednesday night in Dallas. The fact the Bolts didn't get out of their own structure to try to chase offense, even after putting up just four shots in the first period, is another positive sign this team is trending in the right direction with the playoffs almost here.
"I think that was the team that was hungry, desperate," Killorn said. "It didn't seem to be a ton of offense out there, but I don't think we gave up a ton looking back at their goals. I think we were opportunistic. I loved Cerny's goal at the end. I think that's huge for us. So pretty happy with the way we found a way to win."
Video: DAL@TBL: Cernak buries a one-timer past Oettinger
2. THE RIGHT RESPONSE
The Lightning took command of the contest late in the second period when Alex Killorn finished off a beautiful passing sequence on the power play that went from Brayden Point in the left circle across the ice to Yanni Gourde in the right circle and then down low on the back post for Killorn to redirect at 16:39 of the middle frame.
That lead extended to 3-1 right before the break when Point stole a puck from Esa Lindell deep in the Stars' zone and drove to the net, sending a backhander past Stars goalie Jake Oettinger at the far post with 14 seconds to go in the period.
But Dallas threatened to make a game of it in the third. The Stars came out with a push to start the final stanza and got a little closer when Andrej Sekera unleashed a shot from the right point that took a deflection off of Point's stick according to Killorn and beat Vasilevskiy.
It was how the Lightning responded to Dallas cutting the lead to one that had Cooper most pleased with his team's effort Wednesday. The Bolts were back on it the next shift, taking ownership of the puck and keeping it buried in the Stars zone. Fifty seconds after Sekera's goal, the Lightning re-established their multi-goal lead, Erik Cernak lining up a shot from the right point that beat Oettinger through a screen in front from Yanni Gourde.
"They're on life support regarding the playoffs, and so a proud team, they came out and pushed in the third and were hard to play against," Cooper said. "They get that goal and I think maybe they expended a lot of energy in the time because they were playing those six guys quite a bit. I liked our response after that, even the shift after and we kind of had it in their end a bit and then we ended up scoring. It was probably a frustrating one to give up for them, but they pushed on us and we were fortunate to get through it."
The Lightning held the Stars at bay the rest of the way. Dallas never seriously threatened Vasilevskiy's net again. The Bolts added empty-net goals from Ross Colton and Mikhail Sergachev over the closing minutes for the 6-2 final.
"When you think about playoff series and stuff, there's going to be ups and downs," Killorn said. "They score a goal, I think it hits off Pointer's stick. It's one of those goals that you'd like to have back, but I think the way we responded was great. That line, Coleman, Gourdo and Goodrow have been really good for us and they find a way. But Cernak was unbelievable tonight too."
Video: DAL@TBL: Johnson wires home wrist shot from the slot
3. SLUMP-BUSTING BOLTS
A couple Lightning players who have found goals hard to come by of late hit the back of the net Wednesday against Dallas.
The hope is, scoring one will lead to more for those Bolts.
Tyler Johnson opened the game's scoring with his open shot from the slot that came off a fortuitous bounce on a blocked pass.
Johnson netted his eighth goal of the season and ended a 21-game goal drought.
"It's nice when they start to go in," Johnson said. "There's times where you can pick the perfect shot and it just doesn't go and other times like that where it wasn't quite exactly where I wanted to shoot but it still goes in. It's one of those things that it's hockey. It's something that you live through and go through and just got to keep working hard."
Ross Colton couldn't do anything but score goals when he first broke into the NHL in late February.
But entering the Dallas contest, he hadn't scored a goal or recorded a point in nine-straight games. He broke out of that slump after registering an empty-net goal with 3:13 remaining to seal the Lightning win. The goal was Colton's ninth of the season in just 27 games.
And Mikhail Sergachev had scored just two goals this season prior to Sunday's game in Detroit. But Sergachev netted the game-winner in the Bolts' 2-1 win over the Red Wings, and he added an empty-net goal with 53 seconds to go for his second goal in as many games.
"He's always had good offensive instincts," Cooper said. "With defensemen, some years the puck goes in for them and some years it doesn't because most of the time you're shooting it from 60 feet away so you can't expect them all to go in. He shouldn't be frustrated about that. He's scored some big goals for us. It's the other parts of his game that we really marvel at, he's really improved at. It's always good to get on the scoresheet but it's not a pre-requisite as far as we're concerned he has to score every night because he does so many other things well."