Even a four-goal lead isn’t safe these days for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts stormed out to a 4-0 advantage against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday then had to hold on for dear life over the final 90 seconds after the Pens pulled within a goal late.
The Lightning, behind Tyler Johnson’s hat trick and a 26-save performance from rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy, persevered though, grabbing an important mid-season victory over the Eastern Conference leading Penguins.
Tampa Bay will take the next three days off for Christmas before returning to the ice Saturday versus the Carolina Hurricanes. What did we learn about the Lightning as we head into the break? Here are a couple points to ponder during the holidays.
1. Healthy again, the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line is nearly unstoppable
The Lightning’s top-producing line hadn’t had as much success in recent games, mostly because one or more of its parts was missing.
Ondrej Palat was forced to sit versus Carolina (Dec. 11) because of a lower-body injury and was sidelined the next three games on the Bolts’ road trip.
When Palat returned against New Jersey, Tyler Johnson was absent with a stomach virus and couldn’t go against the Devils. Palat, Johnson and Nikita Kucherov were together for the Bolts road-trip finale on Long Island, but Johnson clearly hadn’t fully recovered from the virus that days earlier had left him bedridden and the line sputtered.
Healthy and fully energized for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the trio produced all four Lightning goals to lead the way against the benchmark team in the East.
“That line hadn’t played together for a couple weeks,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “They’re finally back healthy, and they showed what they can do. It’s pretty impressive.”
Early in the third period with the Lightning still holding a comfortable three-goal margin over Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby had a breakaway on Lightning rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was making just his third start in the NHL.
Vasilevskiy didn’t flinch, holding his ground to deny Crosby and keep the Penguins from inching closer. That save would loom large at the game’s conclusion with the Bolts winning by just a single goal.
Asked after the game what he thought as Crosby came barreling toward him, Vasilevskiy responded, “It was Crosby? I made the save, yeah? Cool.”
Vasilevskiy said the main takeaway from his week in the NHL was that you have to remain focused on the puck at all times.
“I realized if you take a rest for a couple minutes of the game, you get a couple goals in the net,” he said.
3. The Bolts should have had five goals
Tampa Bay entered Tuesday’s game with more goals than any other team in the NHL but had struggled in recent games to put the puck in the net, scoring just 12 times combined in the six games leading up to the meeting with Pittsburgh.
The Lightning broke out of their scoring slump and were more reminiscent of the team fans saw through much of October and November with four goals against Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and his second period replacement Jeff Zatkoff.
But, it could have been (and should have been) five.
In the second period with the Lightning ahead 4-0, Valtteri Filppula pushed the puck underneath Zatkoff on a rebound attempt, but before shot went over the goal line, the referee had blown the play dead thinking Zatkoff had covered up the puck.
The play seemed innocuous at the time but could have been a huge call had Pittsburgh managed to tie the game late.