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NHL

The Lightning Finally Unlocked Their Power Play

Ondrej Palat #18 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after scoring a goal
Bruce Bennett/Getty

Just a few minutes before the Lightning took the ice to try and bounce back from a Game 1 loss against the Stars, CBC’s pregame show ran a segment detailing how the power play of the league’s scariest offense had been rendered impotent in its last several games, going scoreless in its most recent 14 chances and notching just one goal in its last 18. Without Steven Stamkos’s rifle disguised as a hockey stick, Kevin Bieksa noted, opposing penalty killers were focusing on the team’s next biggest shots in Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov. By disrupting their shooting lanes and refusing to give the two most important players time or space, the Stars in Game 1—like the Islanders before them—managed to make Tampa’s top unit look powerless and unimportant.

The story continued in the first 10 minutes of Game 2, as all the stereotypes about the Stars’ effective ugliness were on full display. The game’s opening sixth seemed to have more icings and injuries than it did scoring chances, and on Tampa’s one power play the Lightning again seemed frustrated and confused.

Unfortunately for the Stars, their opponents got a couple more opportunities to figure it out, and finally they got it right. After Joe Pavelski took a tripping penalty at 10:58, the Lightning relearned how to efficiently pass the puck with a man advantage. Their first goal of the night used Hedman as a decoy, as Blake Comeau rushed out of position to seemingly stop a return pass to the Bolts’ top defender. In doing so, he let Kucherov slip a pass to Brayden Point in exactly the spot where you don’t want Brayden Point to have the puck. The Lightning had their first lead of the series.

On the Lightning’s next power play, only a few minutes later, the Stars seemed very aware of Point but still found their PK exploitable. The build-up to Tampa’s second goal looks almost exactly the same as their first, but the puck didn’t stop at Point. Instead, Kucherov’s pass moved through the crowded middle and found Ondrej Palat wide open in scoring range. Palat didn’t miss and the Lightning doubled their lead, riding that momentum for 54 more seconds into a Kevin Shattenkirk goal that traveled through a cloud of dust and past Anton Khudobin.

What looked like a sudden explosion of Lightning dominance soon became a pulse-pounding, physical battle as the ice tilted significantly in favor of the Stars in the second period. Dallas got one back amid a flurry of chances while the long change was in effect and then added another five minutes into the third. But the cushion provided by Tampa’s trio of early goals proved to be enough for a victory and an even series, as Andrei Vasilevskiy managed to make 27 saves on 29 shots.

The Game 2 performances of both teams popped a lot of narratives that had already formed after Game 1. Though he recovered gracefully from a bad start, Khudobin suddenly doesn’t look like the unbeatable hot goalie he appeared to be. The Lightning no longer seem gassed by their relative lack of off-days. And in the final 40 minutes, the trailing Stars proved that they can play all-out, aesthetically pleasing hockey that looks nothing like what we saw for most of the Vegas series.

But one truth from these playoffs remained consistent: The Lightning do not fuck up on back-to-back nights. You have to go back all the way to March to find the last time this team dropped consecutive games, and after any performance in the bubble that’s raised an eyebrow even halfway, they’ve quickly recovered to show their superior talent. The Stars, though—at least in five out of six periods so far—have been worthy adversaries for the Cup favorites. Add just a little more bad blood in Game 3, and this could be a hell of a series.