Prior to Thursday night’s exhibition against the Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said the Bolts needed to “start clicking” with just two preseason games remaining and time running out before the season opener versus Philadelphia at Amalie Arena in a week.
The Lightning were a more cohesive bunch in a 3-2 win over the Stars. They limited a potent Dallas lineup to just a handful of scoring chances. They nudged in front with a little more than four-and-a-half minutes to go in regulation on a J.T. Brown laser into the upper-right corner of the net and fended off the Stars in the closing moments to secure a confidence-boosting victory.
But the Lightning also paid an unwanted price.
Right winger Nikita Kucherov was crunched into the boards by Dallas’ Remi Elie in the first period and needed some time before rising to his feet and skating off the ice under his own power.
Kucherov went into the dressing room, returned briefly later in the first to skate during a stoppage in play but headed back into the tunnel and didn’t return.
Kucherov sustained a lower-body injury and his status going forward is questionable.
“If we’re sitting here saying is he in trouble for Opening Night, I don’t think so,” Cooper said. “Maybe for Saturday [preseason finale at Florida].”
Kucherov, who wasn’t noticeably injured as he walked through the corridor outside the Lightning locker room following the victory, scored on the game’s first shift, muscling a shot past Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen as he was getting checked from behind 33 seconds from the opening puck drop to give the Lightning (2-3-1) a 1-0 lead, the opposite of Tuesday’s start against Pittsburgh in Johnstown when the Penguins blitzed down the ice and scored 14 seconds in.
Dallas (1-5-0) tied the game late in the second period, Curtis McKenzie beating Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who played his first full game of the preseason.
Valtteri Filppula answered less than a minute later to put the Bolts back in front 2-1. Alex Killorn found Filppula unguarded in the slot, and the Finnish forward calmly slotted the puck past Lehtonen.
Valeri Nichushkin made a nice move all alone with the puck in close on Bishop, faking a shot to his left to get Bishop out of position and coming back with a wrister glove side to level the score 2-2 at 4:51 of the third.
Brown supplied the game-winner with time in regulation winding down, collecting himself as he skated with the puck onto the edge of the right circle, lining up a shot and blasting a slappper over Lehtonen’s glove.
“We’ve seen him do that before,” Bishop said. “I’d like to see him shoot a little more.”
Bishop made a couple big stops over the closing moments to preserve the Bolts’ second win of the preseason, including one with under two minutes to go where he was lying on his stomach in the blue paint but managed to get a stick on Mattias Janmark’s wide-open shot.
“He looked big in there,” Cooper said of Bishop, who stopped 23-of-25 shots to get his second win in as many preseason games. “He was in command. He was challenging. I thought he played the puck really well. It was good.”
Earlier in camp, Bishop said he would need one full game to be ready for the season opener. He now has allowed just two goals and made 41 saves in slightly less than 90 minutes of preseason action.
“I think today was a good test to play the full game,” he said. “I think I took a step with the half game and then playing a full game tonight…It seemed like it was a long game, but I felt pretty good.”
Cooper said, besides the win, the biggest positive he took out of Thursday’s victory was the way his team clamped down on the Stars’ attack over the final 20 minutes.
“I like the fact that we only gave up five shots in the third,” he said.
With one preseason game remaining – Saturday at Florida -- the Lightning Thursday looked more like a team ready to repeat as Eastern Conference champions and return to the Stanley Cup Final than the one that gave up 16 goals combined in their previous four preseason games.
“It’s good toward the end of the game that we could kind of close it out, get the win,” said Lightning forward Brian Boyle, who got in a first-period fight, which he won handily, with Antoine Roussel. “(The Stars) have a lot of good offensive players, a lot of skill. It was stuff like that, defending, kind of playing our systems, executing where it becomes habit and we don’t have to think about it as much. We can just react. If we do that, we’ll be a much faster team with our decisions and stuff and it’s something that takes a little time. It doesn’t just happen overnight. You can’t flip a switch. It’s good to get a win, especially after the last one.”