In what felt like a miniature playoff series, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes wrapped up a four-game set with a 3-1 win on Thursday night. Thanks to inclement weather and power outages in Texas, the Dallas Stars had to postpone two more games against the Bolts and send the NHL scrambling as they made schedule changes across the league.
Coming off losing two of the three previous games against the Florida Panthers, the Lightning were sitting in fourth place in the Central Division behind the Panthers, Hurricanes, and Chicago Blackhawks when the Lightning learned that they would be heading to Raleigh earlier than originally scheduled.
This schedule change would set up four meetings between the Lightning and Hurricanes over the course of six days, with each team hosting a pair of games. The atmosphere was heavy with playoff aspirations as two of the top teams in the Central Division battled it out to climb further up the standings.
Nedeljkovic Earns First Career Shutout
The first game of the mini-series started out much the same way these two teams’ first game of the season ended — with the Lightning being unable to score. In fact, the Lightning was only able to manage 24 total shots in the game, 13 of those shots coming in the second period alone. Hurricanes goalie Alex Nedeljkovic was never really tested but made all the saves he was tasked with when the Lightning was able to generate what little opportunities they had. Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed three or more even-strength goals for only the third time all season, registering 24 saves at the other end for the Bolts.
While the offensive struggles against the Hurricanes continued for the Lightning, the game was lost due to poor puck management by the wingers in the defensive zone. A lost battle behind the net by Alex Killorn led to the puck squirting up the boards to Martin Necas who threw it on the net. The puck bounced off Killorn before Vincent Trocheck was able to jam it past Vasilevskiy. On the second goal, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat were unable to connect on the breakout as the puck bounced off Palat’s foot and out of the reach of his stick. Andrei Svechnikov was quick to slide the puck down to Sebastian Aho, who raced past Ryan McDonagh and beat Vasilevskiy up high.
The bad luck did not end there. Early in the third period Jordan Martinook outmuscled Alexander Volkov for the puck in front of Vasilevskiy before ex-Lightning Cedric Paquette buried home a shot from the slot. With a three-goal lead in hand and a suffocating defense in front of him, Nedeljkovic had all he needed to secure his first career shutout as the Hurricanes took the first game, 4-0.
Barre-Boulet and Colton Make Debuts
After two scoreless games against the Hurricanes, head coach Jon Cooper and the Lightning were beginning to feel the sense of urgency for a win. For the first time in a long time while on the road, Cooper did not start the Blake Coleman-Yanni Gourde-Barclay Goodrow line together. In fact, Cooper did some line shuffling in hopes of generating more offensive chances, including adding Patrick Maroon on the first power-play unit and bringing up Alex Barre-Boulet for his first NHL game. While these changes saw the Bolts jump out to a quick 11-1 shot advantage, the Hurricanes struck first as Jesper Fast scored on the Canes third shot of the game.
The Lightning was able to tie the game early in the second period as captain Steven Stamkos finally put one past a Hurricanes’ netminder with a blast on the power play. Later in the period, Victor Hedman gave the Bolts their first lead over the Canes in the 2020-21 season, as he sniped a shot over James Reimer’s right shoulder off the faceoff. Fast’s second goal of the night on the power play late in the period tied the game at two apiece heading into the second intermission. The Lightning shut down the Hurricanes the rest of the way in the third period as Vasilevskiy came up big when called upon and Palat gutted out a greasy goal before Killorn sealed the deal with an empty netter.
In the first game back at Amalie Arena, the Lightning had their shot at revenge against Nedeljkovic. For the second game in a row, the Bolts would see a player make his NHL debut and Ross Colton wasted no time making his presence felt on the ice. In his second shift of the game, Colton was able to get inside position on Trocheck and slam home a pass from Hedman. That would turn out to be all Vasilevskiy would need, as the 26-year-old netminder would go on to make 25 saves in route to his first shutout of the season.
The Lightning would add a first-period power-play goal, their second goal on the man advantage in as many games when Coleman redirected a beautiful pass from Gourde to double their lead. Both goalies shutdown opportunities the rest of the way before Goodrow added an empty-net goal to bring the final score to 3-0 on the first night of the back-to-back.
McElhinney Shines Again
After getting shelled in his last outing, Curtis McElhinney was once again tasked to start as Vasilevskiy earned a much-needed night off. As he has shown in the past, McElhinney was up to the challenge and turned aside 31 of the 32 shots by Carolina. The Hurricanes came out hungry for redemption, as the Lightning looked sloppy in the first period and eventually conceded the first goal of the game off a neutral zone turnover with just over five minutes left to play in the opening stanza. The Bolts would need a couple of more big saves from McElhinney before they were finally able to get on the board thanks to Mikhail Sergachev’s first goal of the season midway through the second.
Carolina outshot Tampa through the first two periods, 25-14, but had no answer for McElhinney. Gourde solved Reimer for the second time in the game on a beautiful shot off the rush on his off wing. Goodrow would add his second empty-net goal in as many nights as the Lightning turned a poor start into a gritty, character-building type win. The Lightning would finish the game with 22 shots, their second-fewest this season, as they moved back into second place in the Central Division trailing the Panthers by one point.
This series, as hockey often does, proved that anything can happen in the NHL. The Lightning was often outplayed yet found a way to dig deep and persevere as a team. Taking three of the four games was no easy task against this Carolina team and, as this mini-series provided, a seven-game playoff series between these two teams will make for some entertaining hockey.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.