After having a nice stretch of home games in December, the Tampa Bay Lightning went on a three-game road trip to start the 2023 calendar year, starting with back-to-back games against the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. They started out the first of the two games with a 4-1 victory over the Blackhawks on Tuesday (Jan 3). However, they were not so fortunate on Wednesday (Jan 4) as they fell to the red-hot Wild 5-1.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was scheduled to start the Wild game but was replaced by Brian Elliot, as he was reported to be a little under the weather, per David Schiele of CBS 10 Tampa Bay. It may not have made much of a difference as the Wild controlled most of the game in front of the goaltenders, winning for the ninth time in their last 11 games. Wild goaltender Filip Gustavsson made 34 saves and improved to 8-1 in his last nine starts but left the game late in the third period due to illness.
Elliot Providing Vital Relief in Goal
Elliot started against the Blackhawks, stopping 25 shots in the victory. While beating a team that has just won two of its last 22 contests may not seem like a big deal, providing quality minutes while giving Vasilevskiy a rest is vital to the team going deep into this year’s playoffs. His solid play allowed the Lightning to enter the third period tied, giving them the opportunity to pull away from the pesky Blackhawks and secure the win.
This was an excellent bounce-back game for Elliot, as the 37-year-old surrendered five goals on 29 shots in a 7-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 21. He has an 8-2-0 record, 3.08 goals-against average (GAA) and .900 save percentage (SV%) in 10 contests in 2022-23. Elliot continues to do well in the difficult position of backup netminder, but his play has given the Lightning one of the best goaltending tandems in the league.
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Elliot showed his value again when he was pressed into service at the last minute against the Wild, making this the first time he started back-to-back games since 2017. Even though he allowed five goals on 35 shots, two of the Wild goals hit skates, and a screen blocked his sight in front of another score. His play drew praise from his teammate Steven Stamkos who said after the game that “it’s a tough situation for a player, never mind a goalie, to have to do that. He showed a lot of character and he’s a pro, and I thought he deserved better” (Three things we learned from the Lightning’s loss to the Wild, Tampa Bay Times, Jan 5, 2023).
Lightning Penalty Kill is Still Solid
After allowing just one power-play goal in 27 chances over their previous 11 games, the Lightning gave up one in their last two games. It should also be noted that in the Blackhawks game, they did kill off the other four power-play opportunities and have the eighth-best penalty kill in the NHL at 81%. The penalty kill, which struggled early in the season, has been boosted by the return of Anthony Cirelli, who played his first game on Dec. 3 after being sidelined by offseason shoulder surgery.
The Lightning were exceptional on the penalty kill in December, going 32 for 34 and leading the NHL for the month. “At the end of the day, when we get these kills, we’ve got to make sure that we gain some momentum off it, and the penalty kill has done a great job.” said defenseman Victor Hedman.
Brayden Point Gets Some National Recognition
One of the few bright spots on the night for the Lightning was that Point extended his point streak to six games with a power-play goal in the second period. This, along with getting high-sticked by the Wild’s Matt Dumba, gave the NHL on TNT announcers and studio crew the opportunity to recognize that the 26-year-old is one of the top 10 players in the NHL this season. A recognition that is long overdue.
Point has 22 goals and 39 points in 37 contests in 2022-23, including 13 points on the Lightning’s power play. He also paces the team with six game-winning goals, while his 39 points rank him third on the team, behind Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Looking to put the loss against the Wild behind them, the Lightning will finish up their three-game road trip with a contest against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday (Jan. 6). The Jets are on a three-game winning streak after defeating the Calgary Flames 3-2 on Tuesday (Jan. 3) and will provide another tough road contest for the Lightning.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)