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After slow start against Blackhawks, Lightning find their groove in a hurry

Eduardo A. Encina, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Hockey

TAMPA, Fla. — With all the pomp of opening night — their Stanley Cup banner unveiling to go along with the anticipation of a new season — behind them, the Lightning’s concentration could squarely be on the ice Friday night against the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena.

Leading into this abbreviated 56-game campaign, players and coaches repeatedly talked about the importance of having a strong start to the season. Winning Game 1 is important, but not so much if you drop the second game. Even during last year’s skate to the Cup, the Lightning lost their second game and sputtered out of the gate.

It took a while for the Lightning to find their groove Friday, but when they did it was with a flurry. The Lightning scored three even-strength goals in a six-minute span of the second period to break open a scoreless game, then withstood a Chicago rally for a 5-2 win.

After a scoreless first period, the Lightning dictated the pace with some aggressive forechecking in the second.

Steven Stamkos started things off by stealing a puck behind the net that Blackhawks goaltender Collin Delia intended for defenseman Duncan Keith. Stamkos then found Ondrej Palat streaking to the slot and, as Delia stumbled to the ice, Palat’s one-timer found the back of the net at the 2:25 mark.

Just 2 minutes, 18 seconds later, Alex Killorn lit the lamp with a wrister from the slot on a feed from the right corner from Tyler Johnson. That goal was also a result of some gritty work on the forecheck, as Anthony Cirelli won the puck against the boards in the offensive zone and tapped a pass to Johnson.

At the 8:11 mark, Blake Coleman cleaned up a loose puck in the middle of a crowded net, a goal that stood after a Chicago challenge, to put the Lightning up 3-0.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper compared the opener to a preseason game, with both teams feeling each other out. And without any preseason games this season, the comparison was fitting. He expected a tighter, more-sound Game 2, following the Lightning’s one-side 5-1 win on opening night.

 

“We were fortunate to get the two points, but I think as you move on here and teams start getting their legs under them, the games get better,” Cooper said. “I expect there to be a little bit more intensity. I expect teams to make more plays, and that just comes with reps.”

The Blackhawks answered with a rally of their own, taking advantage of a tripping penalty on Barclay Goodrow. Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat scored at 12:40 of the second, and Patrick Kane’s backhander beat Andrei Vasilevskiy for an even-strength goal at 16:11.

In fact, the Blackhawks seemed to capture momentum in the final eight minutes of the period, and it took a fantastic save by Vasilevskiy on DeBrincat’s wrister from the left circle at the buzzer to prevent a tie game going into the second intermission.

After the Lightning killed an early third-period Blackhawks power play, Yanni Gourde gave Tampa Bay a two-goal cushion inside the final seven minutes. Gourde was the trailer on an odd-man rush, and Coleman set him up for a slap shot while he was streaking through the slot.

Stamkos scored his second goal of the season with 2:22 remaining off a feed from Palat.

Vasilevskiy, who finished with 34 saves, made a remarkable stop in the final minute of the first period to keep the game scoreless. After the Blackhawks took the puck on the forecheck, Phillip Kurashev rifled a shot from the right circle that went off the end board, then charged the net. But Vasilevskiy extended his left leg to close off the goal by tapping away Kurashev’s putback with his skate.

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