Not quite a vintage Lightning performance, but the victory still counts
TAMPA — So that was kind of ugly, but in a totally inspiring way.
The Lightning were outshot by the Islanders on Saturday night. By a ton. They gave the puck away more, they were outhit, they blew one lead early and nearly blew another late.
And yet, by the end of the night, the Lightning were celebrating a 5-3 victory that got them back to .500 after starting the season with three losses in four games.
“We didn’t execute,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I thought we were extremely opportunistic.
“But, in saying that, you’ve got to find ways to win when you’re not at your best. And the Islanders, they threw everything at us. I thought (goaltender Brian Elliott) was a wall back there for us. But you’re going to have to grind out some points when you don’t have your ‘A’ game, and we did that (Saturday night).”
Sometimes, it’s better to be gritty than pretty.
And the Lightning certainly fit the bill Saturday. They got goals after puck battles behind the net, they got goals on rebounds, they got a goal after a huge neutral-zone hit.
Perhaps, most importantly, they didn’t get any goals from Steven Stamkos. Nor did they need to rely on the power play.
Not that they wouldn’t welcome contributions from the captain or the special teams, but the Lightning had been relying on both far too much in the season’s first two weeks. The Lightning had more power-play goals than 5-on-5 through the first five games, and Stamkos had accounted for more than half of their scoring.
On this night, the Lightning got all of their goals in even-strength situations from five different players — including Alex Killorn, who had been on a 33-game scoreless streak, including the playoffs.
“That was a weight off my shoulders, for sure,” Killorn said. “You start to think you may never score again in the NHL the way things are going. Now I’m probably going to play a little more free knowing that I got this one out of the way.
“I wasn’t going to be denied. That was probably the hardest I’ve ever shot a puck.”
Players from all four lines contributed to the scoring, with Brayden Point, Brandon Hagel, Corey Perry and Nick Paul joining Killorn on the scoresheet.
But it was the moments that preceded the goals that meant the most.
It was Hagel going behind the net to win a battle with Scott Mayfield, getting the puck to Nikita Kucherov, whose shot rebounded to Point, who scored from a few feet in front of the net.
It was Perry going down to his knees to win a puck battle behind the net and then getting back up and planting himself to the right of goaltender Ilya Sorokin. Pat Maroon moved the puck to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who sent it across the crease to Perry for the goal.
It was Cole Koepke drilling Nikita Soshnikov in the neutral zone near the end of the second period, with the puck going to Ross Colton, who fed Paul for a goal with one-tenth of a second remaining.
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“We knew that we needed to step up 5-on-5. We couldn’t just keep relying on the power play, and Stammer, basically,” Paul said. “We knew as a group that we had to create more offense 5 -on-5, whether that’s bearing down on rushes, putting pucks toward the net or just winning battles and going east-west and really working in the O-zone.”
In retrospect, it was pretty impressive considering circumstances were not in Tampa Bay’s favor when the night began. The Lightning were playing on back-to-back nights with travel mixed in. They were without defenseman Erik Cernak, who suffered an upper-body injury on Friday night against the Panthers, and Elliot was making a rare start in place of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
They also were the only team in the Eastern Conference without a victory at home, and Cooper had described their early-season start as “leaking oil.” On top of all that, they are about to embark on a five-day, three- game trip to the West Coast.
All in all, there was great potential for disappointment.
And, yet, the Lightning survived their many shortcomings with an opportunistic and tenacious effort when it mattered most.
“(Saturday), it was a big (aim) to create some more offense 5-on-5,” Cooper said. “Not so sure we were in the zone a ton (Saturday), but every time we went in, we did a lot of good things to score those goals. That’s what you want from your guys.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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