Tampa Bay took seven of a possible eight points on its four-game road trip after shutting out the San Jose Sharks 3-0 at SAP Center Saturday.
The Lightning swept the season series from the Sharks, winning both games by a combined 10-1. And they continue to own the Pacific Division, improving to a perfect 8-0-0 against the division this season and winning 11 in a row over the Pacific going back to 2018-19.
Curtis McElhinney was the star of Saturday's performance, the Lightning backup netminder stopping all 30 shots he faced to notch his first shutout with the Bolts and 11th of his career. Tampa Bay blanked an opponent for the third time this season.
After a scoreless first period, Steven Stamkos broke through 4:04 into the second, Kevin Shattenkirk finding the Lightning captain on the left dot from the wall above the right circle and Stamkos one-timing the offering from his knee past a tough-to-beat Aaron Dell for what would prove to be the game-winning goal. Nikita Kucherov tacked on an insurance goal with 2:03 remaining, the Russian right wing backhanding a shot over the glove of Dell from the slot, the second-straight game he displayed his deft touch on the backhand to score.
Ondrej Palat added an empty-netter in the closing seconds.
Tampa Bay is 15-2-1 over its last 18 games and playing its best hockey of the season.
Here's how the Lightning were able to continue rolling in San Jose.
Video: TBL@SJS: McElhinney makes 30 saves to shut out Sharks
1. RETURN OF THE MAC
Staying sharp as a backup goaltender can be a difficult proposition.
Take Curtis McElhinney for example. The Bolts backup to Andrei Vasilevskiy was starting his first game in 16 days when he took up his spot between the pipes in the second half of a back-to-back. The first period in San Jose didn't give McElhinney much action either. The Lightning outshot the Sharks 13-2, the two shots the fewest the Bolts have allowed to an opponent in a period this season.
But when San Jose made its push in the second period with sustained offensive zone time and a couple threatening opportunities, McElhinney didn't miss a beat, playing like an everyday starter to hold the Sharks at bay.
"Great first period, not a lot of shots on their end so was a little nervous going into that second period, but I was able to see some pucks and make a save on Kane there," McElhinney said about his sixth victory of the season. "It was a nice game, one of those ones you kind of work into as the game goes on. It was nice to be on the right side of it."
Evander Kane's breakaway proved to be McElhinney's strongest save of the second period. Kane stole the puck from Nikita Kucherov at the blue line and outraced Kucherov the other way to set up the scoring chance, but McElhinney was able to block his shot away and keep the Lightning in the lead.
In the third period, McElhinney came up with his best effort of the night. Timo Meier walked through the Lightning defense to get in alone down low. Meier tried to come back to his backhand and tuck a shot in at the near post, but McElhinney kept his outstretched left leg glued to the ice to deny.
"It's just one of those plays where you're trying to take away time and space," McElhinney said. "You've got to anticipate the backside's going to be taken away by the pressure coming back, so just make sure it doesn't go short side on you."
McElhinney's shutout was his first since registering 24-of-24 saves at Dallas Feb. 23, 2019 while with the Carolina Hurricanes. After suffering two-straight losses coming into San Jose, McElhinney earned his first win since Jan. 4 at Ottawa.
"I'm so happy for the guy," Yanni Gourde said. "He's been so good. He's worked so hard. Every practice, he's out there working on things. Honestly, he's a great guy in the room, so I was really happy for him to get his first shutout with us. I think he played tremendous tonight and like he did all season. Every time he's in net, he's playing well."
Video: TBL@SJS: Stamkos pots Shattenkirk's feed from circle
2. SHOOTING MENTALITY
Entering San Jose, the Lightning had put up 26 shots or fewer in their previous five games, their 23.4 shots per game average over that stretch the lowest in the NHL.
Which is why it was so good to see the Bolts taking aim at Dell's net from the opening puck drop and not letting up throughout.
The Lightning entered Saturday's game with a shooting mentality. They made a concerted effort to get shots in by their defensemen from the points. They were able to possess the puck in the offensive zone for extended stretches and reel off multiple shots while there. The Bolts had five shots on goal within the opening two minutes and struck a post on another. Tampa Bay finished the first period with a 13-2 advantage in shots. The Lightning didn't have a goal on the board but knew they'd eventually break through if they continued pressuring the opposing.
"it was a physical game. The boys were really competing," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It was tough to leave the period without a goal after some of the chances we had. That's why it was pivotal we had to get the lead in the second because we were throwing everything at them."
Aaron Dell played phenomenally for the Sharks to keep them in the game. Even when the Lightning finally found a way past him in the second on Stamkos' goal four minutes into the middle frame, Dell kept the Sharks' deficit to a single goal for nearly the remainder of the contest as the Bolts struggled to take a shot of enough quality to slip one by him.
It wasn't for lack of effort, however.
Tampa Bay finished with 35 shots on net, its most since putting up 38 in a shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings at AMALIE Arena on January 14.
Video: TBL@SJS: Kucherov nets backhander off pretty passing
3. SHUTTING THE DOOR
Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead into the second intermission but were leaking oil a bit having given up 18 shots and a handful of quality scoring opportunities to the Sharks in the second period.
The Lightning have talked at length this season about learning to manage game situations. When holding a lead going into the final period, the emphasis shouldn't be on trying to score three or more goals to run the opponent out of the building.
Instead, the Bolts want to learn how to close opponents out by shutting the door completely defensively and picking areas to take chances offensively when it makes sense.
Saturday's third period in San Jose was a perfect example of this philosophy.
The Sharks sent 10 shots toward McElhinney's net, but other than Timo Meier's shot in close that the Lightning goalie was able to thwart, San Jose never really threatened to score over the final 20 minutes. The Bolts didn't immediately find an insurance goal.
But they didn't panic and try to force it either.
Late in the game with the finish line in sight, Nikita Kucherov backhanded a shot from the slot over Dell's glove on a rush with linemates Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos to seal the win and the dominating third period performance.
"They had us on our heels on a couple of occasions in the second period, but Mac was fantastic tonight," Cooper said. "That's what you need. Other teams are going to push. When they do, it's kind of one of those bend but don't break, but the goalie was there to make the saves and then I thought we really managed the third well. That was another good period for us. When you do that, usually good things are going to happen and that's what happened."
Following the win over the Sharks, the Lightning improved to 22-0-4 when leading after the second period. Saturday's third period in San Jose provided the template for how the Bolts have to play when they hold a lead late.