The Tampa Bay Lightning got back in the win column Tuesday night with a 6-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at AMALIE Arena and, while there are still some things to work on, two points are two points. The Bolts completed a regular season sweep over the Jackets with wins in all three meetings this season.
Following morning skate on Tuesday, Jon Cooper said the Lightning, “need to play better than we did those last two games, and I think we will.”
After the disappointing loss to Winnipeg on Friday, a quick start was exactly what Tampa Bay needed to get back on track and they got it with a crafty redirect from Nikita Kucherov off a pass from Erik Cernak that got past Columbus goaltender Elvis Merzlikins just 1:40 into the contest. Brandon Hagel picked up the secondary helper on the Lightning’s eighth game-opening goal within the first two minutes this season – the most among all teams in the NHL.
Kucherov’s skill was on full display again when the Bolts made it 2-0 with a power-play goal from Nick Paul at the 9:05 mark of the first. After ripping a one-timer that got blocked in front, Kucherov got a pass from Victor Hedman just a few seconds later and wound up for another one-timer with nearly everyone in the building thinking another heavy shot was coming.
But as Kucherov has done time and time again, he fooled everyone and sent a slap pass right onto the tape of Paul, who was cruising through the slot and redirected the pass right through the legs of Merzlikins to double the Lightning’s lead.
“When you’re on the ice with him, you expect the unexpected,” said Paul. “He didn’t look at me once and it’s right on my tape.
“It’s so deceptive. When you’re playing the PK there, you don’t really know what he’s going to do. You get in the shot lane and then, next thing you know, my stick’s open and he slides it right across without even looking. Special player.”
Paul, who scored 16 goals in 80 games between Ottawa and Tampa Bay last season, is already up to 15 goals through just 39 contests after signing a seven-year contract extension with the Lightning over the summer. The 6-foot-3 forward continues to be big in so many different areas for the Bolts this season, whether it’s killing penalties, blocking shots, winning faceoffs or scoring with the man advantage.
Starting the second period with a 2-0 lead, the Bolts didn’t have the same kind of urgency the team had to start the game, which maybe is to be expected after finishing the first up by two and holding a 21-6 shot advantage.
But Columbus took advantage and made it a 2-1 game when Gavin Bayreuther fired a shot from the point that deflected off a leg in front and got past Andrei Vasilevskiy with 12:56 left in the second.
As it felt like the Jackets were starting to gain some momentum, Vladislav Namestnikov gave Tampa Bay a much-needed boost with his third goal of the season when he collected the puck in the neutral zone and flew into the Columbus end on a breakaway before showcasing some soft hands with a move to the backhand that beat Merzlikins and put the Bolts back up by two with 9:35 left in the second.
“It feels good,” said Namestnikov. “Goals haven’t come easy this year, but you’ve got to take the opportunity and I got one there on the breakaway.
“I just saw I had a clear lane and I saw he was kind of out of position, so I took it to the backhand and had some room there.”
That goal took the game to the second intermission with the Lightning leading 3-1 and holding a 33-13 shot advantage.
“I thought Vladdy’s goal was huge,” said Cooper. “We had that 2-0 lead, they scored and that was soon after where he gave us that 3-1 lead. Big goal at a big time.”
Columbus got back within one at the 4:35 mark of the third period when Tim Berni was left all alone in front and got a clean look at the goal before making it a 3-2 game.
“We left the zone early and we left probably the juiciest part of the ice wide open,” Cooper said. “I think if we could do that one over again, guys would play it differently.”
In a time where Cooper would like to see his team defend better and have more attention to detail in their own zone, this was one of a couple slip-ups that occurred, particularly in the third period. Defending will undoubtedly continue to be a focal point as the team moves forward, but fortunately for the Bolts, the offense came through and carried the load en route to the victory.
After Berni got the Jackets back within one, it didn’t take long for Tampa Bay to regain the two-goal lead with Kucherov, once again, working his magic. With the Lightning back on the power play, Kucherov faked a one-timer off a pass from Hedman and gave the puck right back to the big defenseman. Hedman quickly dished the puck back to Kucherov and, this time, he ripped a one-timer past Merzlikins for his second goal of the game with 13:27 left in regulation.
Kucherov had one more point in his bag when he collected the primary assist on Brayden Point‘s team-leading 23rd goal of the season at the 12:22 mark of the third.
Kucherov’s four-point game was the 21st of his career, already the most in Tampa Bay franchise history. Columbus fans have surely seen enough of the Lightning All-Star, who has posted a ridiculous 28 points over his last 12 games vs. the Jackets with 12 goals and 16 assists during that span.
As for Point, he has now scored a goal in a franchise-best nine consecutive home games for the Lightning, tying Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for the longest such run this season. He’s lit the lamp in 11 of the last 15 contests overall and is tied for the third-most goals on home ice among all NHL skaters this season with 16.
Ross Colton added a sixth goal for Tampa Bay just 1:26 later when he buried his ninth goal of the season on a rebound in front with Pat Maroon and Nick Paul picking up the assists before the Bolts surrendered another goal with 3:26 remaining to wrap up the 6-3 win.
“Take your two points and move onto the next game,” said Cooper. “There was a lot to like about the game and I’m not going to sit here and say a few moments that ended up in the back of the net are going to sour the night, but it’s something we definitely have to get better at.
“Our third period, we just played way too loose. In a game that we had the lead we had, we should’ve just played simple, killed the clock and moved onto Vancouver.
“We almost did that, didn’t quite, but we’ve got two more points right now than we did two and a half hours ago, and that’s a good thing.”