Tampa Bay won its second game in a row, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 Saturday at Amalie Arena behind a 25-save performance from goaltender Ben Bishop, who was back in the lineup for the first time since December 15.
The Bolts seem to have steadied the ship after losing four out of five games between December 6-15. Starting with a win against Philadelphia in Andrei Vasilevskiy’s NHL debut, the Bolts have gotten points in four of their last five and regained the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
So what went right (and wrong) for the Lightning against Carolina? Read on to find out.
1. Bishop buoys Bolts confidence
While the rookie sensation Vasilevskiy proved he will be a future star in the NHL during his three games with Tampa Bay and Evgeni Nabokov has been solid as a backup, the Lightning just seem to play with more confidence when Ben Bishop is between the pipes.
On Saturday, Bishop returned to the lineup after missing four games with a lower-body injury. The Bolts responded with one of their more complete defensive performances of the season, limiting Carolina to 26 not-very-threatening shots on goal. When the Hurricanes did break through for a scoring opportunity, Big Ben was waiting to turn it aside.
“He’s a presence in the net,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I’m sure teams that come in here are probably thinking they’ve got to pick a corner a little bit better than normal just because of his size in the net. He’s in control back there…He gives us a lot of confidence when he’s on the ice, and so it’s really good to have him back.”
Opposing teams are deterred when they see the 6-foot-7 wall they have to shoot through to break into the Bolts’ goal. Conversely, the Lightning can play a bit freer with Bishop in net, knowing how well-protected their goal will be.
“He’s stable. You know what you’re going to get,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “He’s done so well for us, and it’s just an added confidence going into a game.”
2. The KFC line is finger lickin’ good
The Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov line receives the bulk of attention from fans and media due to its incredible production rate and rightfully so. The trio engineered the first goal against Carolina, Palat squeezing a pass through the left circle into the slot for Kucherov, who was waiting to one-time the puck past the Canes’ Cam Ward, a goalie the Bolts have struggled against this season.
Their work in the third period indirectly led to the game-winning goal too. The sustained, nearly minute-long pressure they kept on Carolina’s goal wore the Hurricanes down until the next Lightning shift could score.
But don’t discount the work of the KFC line, that being Alex Kilorn, Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan, either.
On Tuesday versus Pittsburgh, KFC went head-to-head with Sidney Crosby’s line and shut Sid the Kid down. Saturday, KFC again matched up against the opponent’s top line with similar results.
As an added bonus, Killorn scored the game-winner against the Canes, using the screen of Tim Gleason to shield his shot and slip one past Ward.
“(Filppula’s) line has had some pretty big responsibility the last couple of games going against Crosby’s line and tonight going against [Eric] Staal, and for them to chip in and score while you’re pretty much holding them in check [is huge],” Cooper said.
On Saturday, the KFC line was arguably Tampa Bay’s best.
3. The power play remains a huge concern
Sometime later in the season when Tampa Bay’s power play is clicking and scoring goals at the pace it’s accustomed to, fans will look back at the current stretch of man-advantage futility and chuckle at how dire the situation looked in December.
Right now, however, it’s no laughing matter.
The Lightning power play continues to languish, going 0-for-6 against Carolina. The Bolts struggle to enter the offensive zone on the power play, and when they do, more often than not, the puck comes right back out.
Tampa Bay hasn’t scored a power-play goal in five-straight games, not since December 15 in Pittsburgh, and on that occasion the Lightning surrendered a short-handed goal before leveling the score later on the power play.
At the beginning of December, the Lightning had one of the top five power-play units in the NHL. Entering Sunday, it ranks 15th.
It’s getting to the point where it would benefit the Lightning more to just decline the power play, the two minutes of 5-on-4 doing more to disrupt the Bolts’ flow at even strength than spark the offense.
“I feel for the guys because they’re getting unreal looks and pucks are bouncing wide or missing wide or the goalie’s making an unreal save,” Cooper said. “…We’ve had our chances. Eventually, you hope percentages are going to work out in your favor.”