This was a solid, workmanlike victory for the Lightning. They withstood an early surge from the opposition, built a multi-goal lead before the end of the first period, then effectively managed the final 40 minutes to secure a regular season series sweep of the Devils.
New Jersey, currently in last place in the Metropolitan Division, is desperate for points. Factor in last year's playoff loss to the Lightning and two lopsided defeats to Tampa Bay earlier this season. So unsurprisingly, the Devils came out of the gates with an edge to their game. They dictated most of the play in the early minutes, owned six of the game's first seven shots and generated a couple of good looks on Louis Domingue. The Devils also enjoyed a power play opportunity at 8:18 of the first. But the Lightning delivered a strong and successful penalty kill and once it was complete, they grabbed momentum and took over the rest of the period. The Lightning posted 11 of the period's final 13 shots and scored two goals. Nikita Kucherov zipped a wrist shot from the left circle past Keith Kincaid's glove at 13:31. Brayden Point added a power play goal in the final minute of the period - Kucherov fed Point in the slot moments after the Lightning won a faceoff to keep the puck in the offensive zone.
The Lightning recorded 12 first period shots on goal. They had only 14 for the rest of the game. But that number isn't reflective of how much they controlled play. For much of the final two periods, the Lightning moved pucks cleanly up the ice and worked them deep in the New Jersey end. On a number of occasions, they tired out the Devils with long, offensive zone shifts. When the Devils tried to go on the attack, the Lightning gapped up well in the neutral zone and limited New Jersey's speed game. The Lightning's puck management was crisp, so the Devils couldn't capitalize on turnovers. The Devils registered 19 shots over the final two periods, but most weren't dangerous. A few were, however. Egor Yakovlev did convert on an isolated Grade-A chance in the middle of the second period. That New Jersey tally came a few minutes after Tyler Johnson's tip had given the Lightning a 3-0 lead. But just 73 seconds later after Yakovlev's goal, Yanni Gourde finished a tic-tac-toe passing sequence (following a New Jersey d-zone turnover). Gourde's goal not only re-established a three-goal lead for the Bolts, it also sapped any potential New Jersey momentum. The Devils' energy level was drained even more when Steven Stamkos converted on a power play 20 seconds into the third.
There were plenty of impressive Lightning performances in this contest. Kucherov continued his torrid scoring run. He matched a career-high with four points and now has 24 points during his 10-game point streak. Kucherov has posted at least three points in seven different games this season. Tonight was his 100th career multi-point regular season game. Point had three points and finished with 11 points in the three contests against the Devils. Gourde was a puck hound all night and effective at getting under the skin of the opposition. He drew a retaliatory penalty in the second period, a post-whistle infraction that negated a pending New Jersey power play. Gourde also won seven of nine faceoffs.
The early multi-goal lead allowed the Lightning, who play Tuesday in Detroit, to ensure that no one had to play big minutes. Every Lightning skater played at least 10 minutes and Victor Hedman was the only one to exceed 20 minutes.
If their games over the last several seasons are any indication, Tuesday's contest between the Lightning and Red Wings will be physical and hard-fought. Like the Devils, the Red Wings are hungry for points and looking to move up the standings. The Wings also are eager to end a long losing streak to Tampa Bay. The Lightning will need to be ready.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1. Nikita Kucherov - Lightning. Goal and three assists.
2. Brayden Point - Lightning. Goal and two assists.
3. Yanni Gourde - Lightning. Goal.