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Burns: Three things we learned from a win in the desert

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s contest in Arizona against the Coyotes was not necessarily a must-win, what with the Bolts still firmly in third place in the Atlantic Division and not in any immediate danger of falling out of the playoff chase.

But to the Bolts players, there was no way they could return to Tampa following the end of a four-game road trip without two points from their meeting with the Coyotes. Arizona was virtually out of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. A loss to a non-playoff team at this juncture of the season with every point taking on added importance would have been a tough pill to swallow for the Bolts.

“It was huge,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said about Saturday’s win. “I mean, it was pretty much a must win for us in here. We know we talked about it yesterday. Obviously, we weren’t happy with the way we played in Dallas.”

In Dallas, the Lightning played well through the first 40 minutes then let their foot off the gas in the third and allowed the Stars to rally for the win.

The Bolts were determined not to have a repeat against the Coyotes. Their effort resulted in a 2-0 victory Saturday night and a return to normalcy after having lost five of their previous six.

Ondrej Palat’s wrist shot from the boards with 57 seconds left in the first period proved to be the game-winning goal, mostly because of a stout defensive effort that limited the number of quality chances sent at the Lightning goal and another superb performance in net by Ben Bishop, who recorded his fifth shutout of the season.

The Lightning (87 points) return home in second place in the Atlantic, just two points behind division-leading Florida (89). They’ll play their next six games at Amalie Arena, three of them against teams currently in the playoffs.

Before looking ahead to that crucial homestand – the last one of the regular season – let’s examine how the Bolts righted the ship against Arizona in today’s 3 Things.

1. BISHOP CONTINUES TO RACK UP ACCOLADES

With the way the season is going for Ben Bishop, the Lightning goalie has to be considered a finalist for the Vezina Trophy given to the NHL’s best netminder. He may even be the frontrunner.

If not, he should be.

Bishop, again, turned in a sterling performance in the desert for the Lightning, stopping all 32 Arizona shots to record his fifth shutout of the season and 15th in a Bolts jersey to pass Nikolai Khabibulin (14 shutouts) and move into first place on the franchise’s all-time shutouts list.

“That’s exciting,” Bishop said after hearing about the new record. “Hopefully I can add to it.”

Superlative efforts in goal have come to be expected from Bishop, who now has given up two goals or less in 36 of his 53 starts this season. Whenever the 29-year-old veteran takes the ice, the Lightning know they only need to score a couple goals to come out with a victory.

“He’s absolutely one of the best goalies in the league, no doubt,” Bolts defenseman Anton Stralman said. “I think that’s pretty obvious the last couple of years how well he’s been playing.”

Currently, Bishop leads the NHL for goals-against average at 2.02. If the season ended today, that would be the best GAA for a single season in Lightning history. Bishop’s .928 save percentage ranks tied for second in the league.

On Saturday, Bishop posted his 30th win of the season, his third-straight year racking up 30 or more wins. Only one other goalie in Tampa Bay history has ever recorded 30 wins in a season, that coming in 2002-03 when Khabibulin finished the year with 30.

That’s it, one goalie with 30 wins in 20 years.

That is, until Bishop came to the Bolts in a trade with Ottawa in exchange for Cory Conacher on April 3, 2013, a move that now has to be considered one of the most lopsided deals to the positive in Tampa Bay history.

“One of my goals every year (is to get to 30 wins),” Bishop said. “That actually means a lot, something I try to do. It’s nice to get 30.”

2. 5-ON-3? NOT A PROBLEM

The Lightning penalty kill has been on top of its game during the four-game road trip and continued to shine in Arizona.

The Bolts entered Saturday’s game having gone nine-for-nine on the penalty kill over its previous three games.

The penalty kill finished the road trip unblemished, going 6-for-6 against the Coyotes.

Included in that perfect penalty kill was a pair of back-to-back 5-on-3 advantages for Arizona that the Lightning escaped by working together seamlessly as a unit.

“It’s unfortunate when that happens for two full minutes, but I think the guys did a great job,” Bishop said. “Everybody kind of did their part there, some big dumps when we needed them. Everybody has to work together when it’s 5-on-3, and I thought we did a good job of that.”

Saturday’s 5-on-3 penalty kill came at a crucial juncture of the game for the Lightning, who led 1-0 and were trying to maintain that advantage when they were whistled for three-consecutive penalties early in the second period. One sequence underscored the Bolts’ togetherness as a penalty-killing unit over the 1:56 they were down to three men. A shot off a scramble in front had Bishop well out of position, but Stralman slid into the blue paint and got down on his knees to act as an extra goaltender and cover the net while Bishop recovered to get back into position.

Stralman’s quick thinking prevented Martin Hanzal from getting off a shot in the slot, and Arizona’s best chance to score went by the wayside.

The Coyotes only managed four shots total during the 5-on-3.

“That was obviously big,” Stralman said. “That’s another thing that gives your team a big boost killing a 3-on-5. And we did a good job. They obviously had some chances, like they should on 5-on-3, but when they did, Bishop was there.”

3. 60-MINUTE EFFORT

The biggest disappointment from Thursday’s 4-3 loss in Dallas wasn’t so much that the Lightning lost.

The Stars are currently the top team in the Western Conference, so a loss to them in Dallas is not surprising.

What troubled the Lightning, however, was the way they lost. They executed brilliantly for the first two periods in building a 3-2 lead but then played not to lose in the third and did exactly that. The Bolts wasted one of their better 40-minute performances of the season with a lousy final 20, letting at least one point and possibly two slip away.

There would be no such let up in Arizona.

The Bolts grabbed the game’s first goal and then held the lead throughout in a solid 60-minute effort. In Dallas, the Lightning relinquished a one-goal lead on three separate occasions. They weren’t about to let another one go on Saturday.

“This was probably one of our best periods, our best period of the year in the first, and now it’s just about doing it for three periods,” Bishop said. “If we can play that way, we can be really successful.”

Ondrej Palat’s first period goal wasn’t generated off a crafty buildup or the result of hard work in front of the net. Rather, Palat sent an innocuous wrist shot from the boards as a power play expired toward net that Arizona goalie Louis Domingue had trouble picking up. The shot slipped under Domingue’s leg, and the Lightning took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.

“I think the one that went in on him, he would certainly like to have back,” Arizona head coach Dave Tippett said.

The Bolts weren’t concerned with how the puck went in, however. All they cared about was they had the lead, and they were going to protect it.

Tampa Bay clamped down defensively and came through with a sorely-needed victory to stem the tide of losing that had beset the Lightning of late and get back into the chase for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.

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