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NHL

Tampa’s Back, Obviously

Victor Hedman celebrates with teammates
Bruce Bennett/Getty

Part of the reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning are so frickin’ scary is that they don’t play two bad playoff games in a row. Going back to the beginning of last year’s run to the title, every single Bolts loss in the postseason has been followed up by victory. And so, after the team “laid a bit of an egg in Game 1,” according to their own coach, the expectation heading into Game 2 was that they’d play the Islanders both more desperately, and with more success. The Bolts absolutely did just that, controlling the action for most of the night and leaving the ice with a 4-2 victory to even the series.

“It was a total team effort—more of the way we’re used to playing,” Victor Hedman said. “It’s exciting when you feel that energy on the bench.”

“Guys were selling out a lot more,” Brayden Point said. “Guys were winning races to the puck.”

Tuesday’s game was a weird one. It was chippy, even spiteful at times; it featured the Islanders having to briefly switch out goalies; and it included a goal for each team that felt like referee-assisted robbery. But even if the game itself was chaotic and heavy on people getting wronged, the ending felt very familiar—comfortably so, if you’re Jon Cooper and his boys—as the Lightning showcased everything they do well while more or less cruising to the win.

Though he didn’t put any of those four pucks in the net for the Bolts, Nikita Kucherov was easily the king of the night, on account of his gorgeous passing that unlocked the offense. Kuch had three assists that further shored up his lead as the team’s top playoff points-getter. He fed the first goal to Point with this baffling little show-offy stick move that got the puck from behind the net to inside it in the blink of an eye.

And he opened up room for the second by receiving a long pass, doing a little dance in the offensive zone, and then feeding Ondrej Palat in the slot.

This was a much-needed reawakening for a first line that only managed three shots on goal in Tampa’s Game 1 loss. But that Palat goal was also the real, um, lightning rod for controversy in the game’s second period, as the Bolts took a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish while they had too many men on the ice. A mind that seeks to impose order on a world that favors entropy might see this as karma for Brayden Point getting a penalty for being cross-checked into the goalie—which briefly sent Semyon Varlamov out of the game and led to an Isles power play goal—but that’s not a particularly satisfying explanation to me. It was simply illegal, and yet it counted.

But the Lightning did a good job of making it a moot point in period number three, because finally, their blue-liners showed up with some offense. The lack of goals from literally any of the Lightning defensemen so far in the playoffs had become enough of a problem that Hedman, who scored 10 times in last year’s postseason, had to address it after Game 1.

“We’ve got to be a little more active, more of a threat to shoot, and we’ve got to be a little bit more aggressive up ice, joining the rush,” Hedman said. “And as soon as we get the puck we can kind of look to shoot and create scrambles.”

This turned out to be an example of manifesting one’s desires, as both Vic and Jan Rutta (who hadn’t found the net since 2019) got big insurance goals in the third. Rutta’s came on a long blast after a failed clearance, while Hedman scored a beaut on the power play (another area where the Bolts excel) off the last of Kucherov’s assists.

Amid all this, Andrei Vasilevsky turned in yet another top-notch start, knocking back 24 of 26 Islanders shots and only allowing that second goal on an odd rebound when the game was all but out of reach. I’m partial to this particular pad smothering, coming as it did at the end of the second where the Isles could have drastically changed the mood by tying it up at two heading into the last intermission.

With that fairly meaningless Barzal goal late and some feisty interactions at the very end, the Islanders have at least already discovered the right attitude to take back to the Coli. But if Game 1’s near flawless win was a dream start to the Isles’ run at revenge, this Game 2 loss should be where the reality and enormity of their task sets in. The version of the Lightning that stifled the Islanders throughout Tuesday’s game is the one that they’ll have to be better than across the next five games if they want to move on.