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Burns: Three things from a point in the Music City

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

A spirited third-period Tampa Bay rally fell just short in Nashville, the Bolts grabbing a point after coming from two goals down to tie the Predators in regulation but losing with 34 seconds left in overtime.

The Lightning return to Amalie Arena on Thursday for a rematch against St. Louis before embarking on their longest road trip of the season, a five-cities-in-ten-days journey to the West Coast.

The Bolts remain in first place in the Eastern Conference/Atlantic Division, the critical point they earned in Nashville keeping them one ahead of Montreal in the standings.

How should the Lightning view this latest result? We’ll delve into that and more in today’s 3 Things.

1. LIGHTNING BACKUP GOALIES PRODUCE THE BEST SAVES

Ben Bishop is the clear starter for Tampa Bay and despite being overshadowed by the Bolts scoring prowess has quietly put together another outstanding season in net.

When it comes to the best saves of the season, though, Bishop takes a back seat to his backups.

Early in the year, Evgeni Nabokov made an unreal save against New Jersey’s Michael Ryder, sliding over to deny Ryder with the knob of his goalie stick after Ryder got the puck on the left wing with a wide-open net.

Nabokov’s stop was the save of the season for the Bolts until Tuesday, when Lightning rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy one-upped the NHL veteran.

With the game still scoreless in the first period, Vasilevskiy blocked away Craig Smith’s wrist shot from the left circle, but the rebound fell right to Mike Ribeiro in the slot. With Vasilevskiy out of position from Smith’s shot, Ribeiro had nothing but net to shoot at, but the Russian netminder stretched his left leg out as far as it would go to cover the far post and made a toe save on Ribeiro’s backhanded shot.

“I’m sure that won’t be the last time tonight you see that save,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said postgame.

Cooper was right. The save was so good, even ESPN noticed it, naming the stop Tuesday’s top play on SportsCenter (apparently nobody dunked in the NBA last night).

2. GOAL DROUGHT, WHAT GOAL DROUGHT?

A week ago, Lightning right winger Nikita Kucherov was mired in his longest goalless stretch of the season. After getting shutout in St. Louis, the Russian had gone 13 games without scoring.

But that slump seems a distant memory now.

Starting with his empty-net tally to close out a victory in Dallas, Kucherov has recorded a goal in four straight games, his longest goal streak of the season.

“You could tell by the expression on his face, (the empty-net goal) was one, big, massive load off his shoulders,” Cooper said.

In Nashville, Kucherov displayed his exemplary hand-eye coordination, batting a bouncing puck out of the air and past Predators’ goalie Pekka Rinne to secure an important road point for the Bolts.

Last season, Kucherov went through a similar stretch where he didn’t score in 14-straight games he played in, and the rookie was visibly distraught with his inability to produce, likely the result of the pressure he put on himself to try to stick in the NHL.

“The frustration level with him last year was mountains ahead of what it is now,” Cooper said. “…Sometimes when players come in the league, they think, ‘Why can’t I score every single night? I scored my very first game on my very shift, I should be able to do this every night.’ Well, it doesn’t work that way. You have to be able to weather those storms when pucks aren’t going in for you.”

Kucherov withstood this latest setback and is now thriving once again. He has 21 goals this season, second-most behind only captain Steven Stamkos.

3. BEST IN THE WEST

As the 2014-15 season has progressed, the consensus among hockey experts is that the Western Conference is the better of the two NHL conferences.

The Lightning might beg to differ, however.

In 18 matchups against the West, Tampa Bay has compiled an 11-4-3 record. The Bolts own a blowout victory over Pacific Division leader Anaheim, swept Vancouver and Calgary and have gotten points out of road tilts against Western heavyweights Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago.

If the postseason were to begin today, the Lightning would have a 6-1-3 record against Western Conference playoff teams.

Tampa Bay will need to continue its mastery of the West to stay atop the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings. The Bolts next seven games come against the West, and five of the seven are on the road.

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