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Burns: 3 Things we learned from sweeping the road trip

Bryan Burns on another fast start, Vasilevskiy continuing to improve and the defense shutting the door

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished a feat Sunday they've only achieved one other time in franchise history.

They swept a road trip of four or more games.

The Lightning completed the four-game sweep of their road trip following a 3-1 victory at the Carolina Hurricanes under not ideal circumstances. Less than 24 hours earlier, the Bolts knocked off the Ottawa Senators 5-3 in Ottawa. The Lightning then had to ride a bus to the airport, clear customs in Ottawa and make the two-hour flight to Raleigh, arriving in their hotel sometime around 2:30 a.m.

The 5 p.m. start time for Sunday's game at Carolina was earlier too, giving the Lightning two less hours to recover.

The unusual situation didn't matter.

Tampa Bay sprinted out to a 2-0 lead within the first five minutes and extended that advantage to 3-0 early in the second period on Brayden Point's team-leading 17th goal of the season.

The Lightning defense and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net were smothering too. They held a high shot-volume team like Carolina to just 29 shots on goal and limited the high-quality scoring chances to a handful throughout the game, even with fatigue setting in.

Only Andrei Svechnikov's open shot from the left circle with eight minutes to go beat Vasilevskiy in the 3-1 final.

Tampa Bay returns home for one of just three games in January at AMALIE Arena on Tuesday, January 7 against Vancouver with a seven-game win streak in tow. The Lightning are only three wins from matching the longest win streak in franchise history (10-straight wins Feb. 9-27, 2019).

Here's how the Lightning continued to roll.

Video: TBL@CAR: Stephens buries Verhaeghe's feed

1. PLAYING FROM IN FRONT
Tampa Bay knew it would be critical to get off to a fast start in Carolina, particularly with the trying circumstances surrounding Sunday's game.

Two goals in the first 4:44 of the contest was exactly what the Lightning were looking for.

Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead just 2:36 into the game when its kid line connected for the opening goal. Carter Verhaeghe had possession near the right wall and spotted Mitchell Stephens charging hard toward the back post. Verhaeghe threaded a pass across the slot right into the path for Stephens to one-time past Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek to ensure the Lightning would play from in front.

"Carter made an unbelievable pass, great vision on the play and I just tried to get it off as quick as possible," Stephens said about his second career NHL goal.

A couple minutes later, the Lightning stripped Dougie Hamilton as he tried to make his way from behind his own net. The loose puck found Steven Stamkos in the left circle, and, with time and space, Stamkos had time to pick his spot and send the Bolts in front 2-0.

"I've been in the League a while, that was one of the worst back-to-backs having played in Canada, clearing customs, getting in at 2:30, 3 in the morning," Stamkos said. "We knew this one was going to be a tough one, so we wanted to just lay it on the line early and we had a great start. That was part of the game plan and then weathered the storm the rest of the way led by our goaltender and our penalty kill. To be able to jump out to that 3-0 lead, it gave us some wiggle room to catch our breath a little bit. You could tell we were kind of fatiguing toward the end of the game, but we stuck with it. We didn't really break. Again, PK and our goaltender were good down the stretch."

Video: Lightning defeat Hurricanes for seventh straight win

2. VINTAGE VASILEVSKIY
Fox Sports Sun pre- and post-game analyst Bobby "The Chief" Taylor put it best Sunday night.

What we're seeing out of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy right now is vintage Vasilevskiy.

The Russian netminder was in complete control Sunday night in Carolina. He flirted with a shutout for a little more than two periods and stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced to win his fifth in a row.

Vasilevskiy improved to 19-9-2 on the season. He hasn't lost in regulation since December 14, going 6-0-1 since.

Vasilevskiy is 11-3-2 over his last 16 starts. Since December 1, he leads the NHL for wins with 10.

There was some concern maybe Vasilevskiy wasn't as sharp coming off a season in which he backstopped the Lightning to 62 wins and won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top netminder. Vasilevskiy didn't start the 2019-20 season as strongly as we've come to expect.

But over the last month to a month-and-a-half, Vasilevskiy has been dialed in.

That, more than anything, is why the Lightning have won seven in a row and have climbed their way back into a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division standings.

"Obviously, this was one of the toughest back-to-backs I've played in the league," Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said. "I know we had to come out, get a good start and to be able to battle for 60 minutes and grind one out and obviously Vasy made some huge saves throughout the game, but to get the two points here feels real good."

The Lightning knew if they were going to win in Carolina, they were going to need a big-time effort from their netminder.

Vasilevskiy provided it, staying calm, cool and collected throughout the entire 60 minutes and giving the Lightning the confidence he would be there to bail them out if the defense faltered, which it rarely did.

Vasilevskiy improved to 7-0-0 all-time against Carolina, the Hurricanes one of just four teams he's yet to lose to in the regular season for his career along with Anaheim (3-0-0), Chicago (4-0-0) and Detroit (8-0-0).

Video: Cirelli on Bolts 7th win in a row

3. A DEFENSIVE MENTALITY
As good as Andrei Vasilevskiy might have been in net for the Lightning, Tampa Bay's group effort defensively may have been even more impressive.

The Lightning held a shot volume team to just 29 shots and limited the number of high-quality scoring chances to only a few. Even as they started to wear down from the midpoint of the game through the third period, the Bolts maintained their structure defensively and kept Carolina to the perimeter for the majority of the game.

Whenever the puck did work its way down into the danger areas, the Lightning were there to tie up a stick or get in the path and disrupt anything the Hurricanes were trying to do in close to goal.

"Yeah, I think everyone's kind of committed to being better defensively and trying to keep the puck out of our net," Cirelli said. "Especially with Vasy, he's making huge saves for us. The big thing is breaking the puck out, I think we're doing a good job of trying to get out of the zone quicker. Another thing is blocking shots. I think the guys are doing a good job of getting in lanes and helping out whenever we can."

Perhaps no sequence exemplified the Lightning's commitment to doing whatever it took to keep pucks out of the net than a late-game four-minute penalty kill while holding on to a 3-1 lead. The Lightning blocked a ton of shots - Yanni Gourde had a pair of critical back-to-back blocks to keep the puck from reaching Vasilevskiy - and scrambled to get into shooting lanes to make sure Vasilevskiy saw everything coming his way and was comfortable in net.

The Lightning blocked five shots over the end-game penalty kill. Carolina didn't register a single shot on goal over the closing minutes.

In a critical situation where Carolina had a chance to get back into a game it had been outclassed throughout, the Lightning buckled down and played some of its best hockey of the game to preserve the win despite their admitted fatigue.

"We've talked about guys needing to sacrifice their bodies in front of our goaltender," Stamkos said. "We have an elite goaltender for sure. We have a lot of trust in him, but, like I said, we can't say enough good things about the penalty kill. At the end, guys are blocking shots. We're seeing a lot more guys stepping up in that department, and that's part of a winning culture. Again, we knew they were going to press in the third. Although we didn't probably attack as much as we wanted to, we held them."

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