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Burns: Three things we learned from plowing the Avalanche

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Vezina Trophy finalists (2013-14) Ben Bishop and Semyon Varlamov squared off on Saturday, with Bishop outdueling Varlamov in a shootout to give Tampa Bay its seventh consecutive victory at Amalie Arena. 

The Lightning have one game remaining Tuesday against Vancouver before taking a much-needed extended rest for the All-Star Game. They’ll hope to do so atop the Eastern Conference standings, last night’s victory helping to make that goal a reality.

How were the Lightning able to regroup after a Colorado gut punch with 6.8 seconds remaining? And who came up big for the Bolts in the win?

1. THE FIRST PERIOD WAS ONE OF THE BOLTS’ BEST OPENING PERIODS OF THE SEASON

In recent games, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper has lamented his team’s slow starts. Against Edmonton in particular, the Lightning were sleepwalking through the first period and parts of the second and nearly lost to the worst team points-wise in the NHL before rallying in the third.

Against Colorado on Saturday, the Bolts were on their game from the opening puck drop, and they took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission as a result.

“We had a great first period,” Cooper said. “I thought we controlled the play a little bit.”

The Triplets ignited the fast start, taking possession of the puck and keeping it in the Colorado zone before drawing a penalty 31 seconds into the game, Jan Hejda whistled for hooking Ondrej Palat. The Lightning kept the pressure on during the power play and produced the game’s first good scoring chance when Ryan Callahan took a couple whacks at a rebound in front of goal that Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov was able to turn away.

Varlamov had no chance, however, on the Bolts opening goal seconds later. Anton Stralman’s lead pass from deep in his zone to the Avs’ blue line for Alex Killorn was placed perfectly, allowing Killorn to continue his momentum into the zone.

Killorn spotted Callahan all alone across the ice, and Callahan buried his shot with the net virtually empty. In less than two minutes, Tampa Bay was ahead 1-0.

Five minutes into the game, the Lightning held a 9-1 advantage in shots.

They finished the period with 15 shots to Colorado’s five. The Lightning, in fact, were a bit unlucky to only have a one-goal lead going into the second.

“I thought the first period was probably one of the better periods we’ve played in a while,” Stralman said.

2. A GREAT FIRST WAS ERASED BY A DISMAL SECOND

As good as the Lightning played in the first period, the second was the complete opposite.

Colorado got on the board 51 seconds into the middle period. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop made three big stops on Ryan O’Reilly right at the net before O’Reilly got free on the back post later in the sequence to push the tying score past Big Ben.

O’Reilly had a great shift to open the second. It was his fake shot and pass to Nathan MacKinnon beside goal that started the play, MacKinnon feeding the puck back to O’Reilly for the score.

After tying the game, Colorado seized control and carried momentum throughout the second period and into the third. The Avalanche got off 20 shots, the most against the Lightning in a period this season (previous high was 19 set multiple times).

Loose pucks more often than not ended up on Colorado’s stick. The Avalanche were more physical in the second and the puck spent the majority of the period in the Lightning zone.

Fans behind the goal opposite the pipe organ certainly got their money’s worth Saturday, at least through the first two periods, with game play tilted toward that end

(The Avalanche) turned their game up a notch, their intensity got higher and ours didn’t,” Cooper said. “We were probably lucky to get out of there with it even.”

3. BEN BISHOP WAS BIG BEN AGAINST COLORADO

Cooper was asked following the game to compare Ben Bishop’s play so far this season to last year when the 6-foot-7 netminder was a Vezina Trophy finalist, setting franchise marks for wins (37), save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23).

This season, Bishop’s .912 save percentage ranks 23rd in the NHL. His 2.38 GAA is 16th.

“Last year, he was nominated for the Vezina, so you have to have pretty sparkling numbers to be nominated in the top three recognized goaltenders in the league,” Cooper answered. “I think I’ve said this before, you’re going to keep that up for year after year after year, you’ll be in the Hall of Fame at some point…So, is there a chance his numbers might come down a little bit? Probably, but the big thing for me is he’s been steady for us all year.”

The Lightning have 29 wins after beating Colorado.

Bishop has 23 of those victories.

“He’s really helping us when he’s in the game,” Cooper said.

Bishop came up huge for the Lightning on Saturday in perhaps the finest performance for Big Ben this season. His 40 saves tied a season high set October 24 at Winnipeg.

None of those were as big, however, as the stop that didn’t show up on the score sheet. His slight deflection of Alex Tanguay’s attempt in the final round of a shootout sealed a tense 3-2 victory over Colorado and, more importantly, secured two points.

The Bolts are back atop the Eastern Conference standings entering Sunday.

They have Big Ben to thank.

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