Tampa Bay played one of its most complete games of the 2014-15 season in a come-from-behind, 4-2 victory in Ottawa on Sunday.
The game had all the hallmarks of a great Lightning victory: the triplets line did most of the heavy lifting as usual, Steven Stamkos scored a highlight-reel-worthy goal and Ben Bishop returned to his spectacularly solid self.
With the victory, the Lightning join Montreal at the top of the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings. Those two teams will square off Tuesday in a critical mid-season matchup.
Here’s how the Bolts handled Ottawa.
1. Who needs an early start?
Before Sunday’s game, Lightning players and coaches spoke ad nauseam about how the Bolts must begin games better.
Two days earlier in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay fell behind 3-0 within the first 14 minutes of the game. The Lightning outplayed the Penguins the rest of the way, but the hole they dug themselves was too deep to climb out of.
Tampa Bay lost 6-3.
The Bolts weren’t going to let it happen again.
Or so they said.
Just 32 seconds in against the Senators, Kyle Turris skated into the slot without much resistance and snapped a shot past Bishop. The Lightning trailed 1-0 before even skating a full shift.
The early goal only strengthened Tampa Bay’s resolve, however.
The Bolts played better as the first period progressed. By the time Victor Hedman leveled the score 1-1 three-plus minutes into the second, Tampa Bay was clearly the better team. Ottawa briefly retook the lead, but Tyler Johnson produced the first of his two goals and Stamkos provided the game-winner with his world-class score.
Fast starts? Who needs them as long as finishes like Sunday’s follow?
2. Time to start calling the Lightning the comeback kids?
A new trend has developed in Tampa Bay, one that is troubling and encouraging at the same time.
The Lightning have become kings of the comeback of late.
Against Toronto on December 29, the Lightning fell behind 2-0 before rallying with three unanswered goals to win an important game against a divisional rival.
It was the Bolts first victory all season when trailing by two goals.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay again had to come from behind to win. Twice, the Lightning found themselves a goal down. Both times they responded to tie the score before eventually overtaking the Senators in a dominating performance over the final 30 minutes of the game.
“Over the last few weeks, we’re starting to come back [in games] a little bit, and I think it’s just the kids are maturing a little bit, understanding…that you’ve got to stick to the plan,” Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said.
The fact the Lightning are able to stay committed to the system in the face of adversity is a testament to their growth as a team.
That they’ve been falling behind, however, is an issue that must continue to be addressed.
3. Sunday’s game supplied two of the finest goals all season
The last two Lightning goals are sure to make any end-of-the-season Bolts highlight video.
On Tampa Bay’s third (and game-winning) goal, Stamkos raced to a loose puck on the right wing, skated with the puck all the way behind the net, came back around in front through the left circle, raced to the far post and stuffed a shot past Ottawa goalie Robin Lehner, all while fending off Senators center Kyle Turris, who trailed Stamkos the entire play.
“He was humming tonight,” Cooper said of Stamkos’ game Sunday. “He had seven shots, a couple Grade-A’s, a well-deserved goal. I thought he was really good tonight.”
Johnson’s game-sealing score was just as remarkable, more for the set-up than the shot.
As a Lightning power play expired, Nikita Kucherov was alone on the left dot, the puck caroming off the wall toward him. Kucherov wound up to fire a slap shot at Lehner but instead faked everybody out by passing to the opposite circle for Johnson.
With Lehner already on his knees in anticipation of Kucherov’s blast, all Johnson had to do was redirect the puck into the open net.
The score was the final nail in the Senators’ coffin.
NHL teams can go a month without scoring goals that pretty.
On Sunday, the Lightning produced two for an extremely-satisfying win in Ottawa.