The Tampa Bay Lightning were a desperate hockey team Tuesday night against Philadelphia having lost two straight to begin their road trip and four of their previous five.
Sparked by the play, however, of 20-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was making his first start in the NHL, the Lightning picked up one of their more important victories of the season in a 3-1 triumph over the Flyers.
What did we learn about the Bolts from a tough win on the second leg of a back-to-back? Read on to find out.
1. A win can change everything
Tampa Bay’s mood was somber entering the Wells Fargo Center ahead of its game against the Flyers, the tremendous start to the 2014-15 season a distant memory following a string of losses and uneven play.
The lead the Bolts had built in the Atlantic Division had dwindled. Detroit was now even with the Lightning atop the standings and Montreal and Toronto were close behind.
Fans wondered what happened to the team that won six in a row in late October/early November. They questioned their team’s ability, wondered aloud what changes the coaching staff should make.
And then the Lightning went out and played inspired hockey, digging in after grabbing a lead 6:34 into the second period to close out a much-needed victory.
Suddenly, the Bay Area could take a deep breath.
The Bolts looked like themselves again.
“It was a relief a little bit to get that win,” admitted rookie forward Jonathan Drouin inside an exalted Lightning locker room with the postgame victory music selection turned up a little louder than usual and the rest of his teammates singing along unabashedly.
Before the game, the Lightning were in danger of dropping three in a row for the first time this season. Now, it’s business as usual as a confident team heads up Interstate 95, eyes set on finishing a five-game road trip with wins over the New Jersey Devils on Friday and the New York Islanders on Saturday.
Twenty four hours ago, that didn’t seem possible
2. Vasilevskiy has made tremendous improvement in his short time playing North American hockey
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 23 saves and held a Philadelphia team that had scored nine goals in its previous two games to just one to lead Tampa Bay to victory.
Had you asked Jon Cooper last September if Vasilevskiy could have turned in that kind of performance in the NHL, the Lightning head coach would probably have responded in the negative.
“Credit our goalie coaches,” Cooper said following Vasilevskiy’s first win in the league. “Last training camp, he was struggling to play pucks. He didn’t know when to come out. (Tuesday), he’s back there. He’s dishing them into areas. This did not look like it was his first NHL game.”
Beginning the season in the American Hockey League with the Syracuse Crunch, Vasilevskiy got off to a slow start but has shined of late. In six of his last eight starts in Syracuse prior to getting the call-up to the Lightning, Vasilevskiy allowed just one goal or fewer. On Monday, he was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week after shutting out Springfield and snapping the Falcons’ franchise-high 11-game winning streak and then making 29 saves in a 4-1 Syracuse victory over Hershey.
Vasilevskiy continued to roll Tuesday, holding the Flyers to a single goal off a tip-in late in the first period. He shut out the Flyers over the final two periods to preserve the win.
“It’s why I love the American League because it’s the greatest league to learn and become an NHL pro and he’s clearly doing that down there in Syracuse,” Cooper said.
3. Jonathan Drouin made his case to be included on the Bolts top line
Towards the end of a 4-2 loss in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Drouin took a couple shifts alongside Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan on Tampa Bay’s top line.
Tuesday, Drouin played the entire game with the pair of NHL veterans, and the rookie proved he could hang with the group.
Drouin set up Tampa Bay’s game-tying goal at 1:50 of the second period. After receiving a puck on the right wing from Stamkos, Drouin skated at a pair of Philly defensemen to occupy them. With Stamkos now free on the right, Drouin dropped a pass into the path of the Lightning captain, and Stamkos, with a clear shooting lane, rifled the puck into the back of the net.
“I thought Jo played a good game,” Stamkos said. “He’s really elevated his game…You can see he’s more confident, more poised with the puck. It’s nice playing with him.”
Earlier, Drouin thought he had a goal of his own, but his shot in the crease was cleared off the goal line by the skate of Philly’s Nick Schultz before the puck could cross.
“My arms were about to go in the air, but Schultz made a great block there,” Drouin said.
If Drouin continues setting up scoring chances and converting some of his own, expect him to see more time on the number one line.