The Tampa Bay Lightning, long known for their offense and all-world power play, walked out of PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tuesday with a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Second Round because of a commitment to defense.
The Lightning defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 in Game 2, the identical score of their Game 1 win on Sunday. They have not allowed a 5-on-5 goal in the best-of-7 series. Going back to the first round against the Florida Panthers, it’s been 203:05 since they last allowed a 5-on-5 goal.
“We’ve got a group that believes in how to play and what you need to do to shut a game down,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s a plan in place, but the guys have to go out and execute it. They work so [darn] hard and they sacrifice.
“When you have that overall mentality and everybody puts the team first, good things and magical things can happen. That’s what these guys are doing.”
Experience matters, of course. The Lightning know how to win these types of games and series because too often in the past, before winning the Stanley Cup last season, they were on the losing end of them.
In 2019, they couldn’t hold a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, losing 4-3 before eventually being swept.
In 2018, they had a 3-2 series lead against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, but lost Games 6 and 7 by a combined 7-0.
They similarly blew a 3-2 series lead in the 2016 Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing 2-1 in Game 7.
“There’s been the trials and tribulations,” Cooper said. “We’ve done it other ways, and it hasn’t worked out, but when you find the recipe, it’s well worth sticking with it, and that’s what the guys have done.”
The Lightning are not playing a risk-reward game for offense.
In the two games in Raleigh, they were outshot 70-45, including 32-15 in Game 2, but they were OK with that because they felt they weren’t giving the Hurricanes much quality with their quantity.
Tampa Bay also blocked 34 shots, including 16 in Game 2.
“We did such a good job in front of me in the blue paint,” goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said. “It was just a great effort by our team. It was one of our best games so far in these playoffs.”
Tampa Bay got its offense on Tuesday when forward Alex Killorn whipped a shot on net from just inside the blue line, beating Alex Nedeljkovic through a screen by Anthony Cirelli at 7:09 of the second period.
Cirelli, a forward, then made it 2-0 at 8:06 of the third period when he collected a rare stretch pass from Victor Hedman, got past defenseman Brady Skjei and scored with a backhand blocker side.
The stretch pass was rare because the Lightning would prefer not to risk it getting picked off in the neutral zone, leading to a possible transition opportunity the other way.
Hedman is one of the best at connecting them, though, so he saw the opportunity and went with it.
Otherwise, there wasn’t much in the way of offense for the Lightning in Game 2, even from their power play, which was 0-for-2 with zero shots on net.
They were 2-for-2 on the penalty kill, including shutting down Carolina’s power play minutes before Cirelli scored.
“It was a full team effort tonight,” Cirelli said. “Everyone was carrying themselves and playing to our standard.”
Tampa Bay’s standard changed with its championship run last season.
It used to be run-and-gun and outscore the opposition. That didn’t work as a solo standard.
The Lightning can still win those high-scoring games when necessary, like they did in a 5-4 victory against the Panthers in Game 1 of the first round, but they’re clearly comfortable going on the road and shutting down a good offensive team, one that was second in the NHL on the power play in the regular season (25.6 percent), one that scored 22 goals in six games in the first round.
“We have guys who are willing to do whatever it takes,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve seen guys that are willing to block a shot with any part of their body. We’ve seen it the last two games with seconds on the clock. That’s what it takes. That’s championship pedigree right there.”