LIGHTNING : GAMES 61 TO 65 : RECAP
By Leo Haggerty

Let me explain how well the Lightning are playing in the 2018-19 regular season.  After 60 contest, Tampa Bay sits on top of the National Hockey League standings with an astounding 94 point.  What that means is if the Bolts lose the rest of the 22 games that remain on their schedule in regulation, they have amassed enough points now where there’s a pretty good chance that the Bolts would still make the playoffs.

With that being said, the Lightning begin this fistful of tilts in Philly coming off a win in Columbus the night before.  Then, it’s back to home ice for a couple of contest with Buffalo and LA.  Finally, it’s off to the great Northeast for back-to-back games at New York with the Rangers and then on to Boston.

Also, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve changed the pictures so it’s more current.  Nice shot of the Amalie Arena ice and of my seat in the press box.

So, let’s see if Tampa Bay continues on its torrid pace toward the playoffs.  The only thing left to do is watch and check out the results.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (W 5-2)

Tampa Bay started off this five-game sequence with a 5-2 victory against Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center.  The triumph extended the Bolts winning streak to seven games along with their consecutive games with at least a point to 11 contests and they did that with the help of an early scoring barrage on the Flyers.

The Bolts blitzkrieg started early in the first period.  D Mikhail Sergachev (4) found the back of the net at 2:22 to give the Bolts an early lead.  Tampa Bay added two more markers in the opening period.  F Alex Killorn (13) lit the lamp at 5:13 and F J.T. Miller (10), after his steal led to a 2-on-1 breakout, scored an unassisted goal at 10:23.  That gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead at the first intermission.

Both goalies owned the second period as the net-minders pitched shutouts.  Bolts G Louis Domingue was the more tested of the two turning away all 14 shots while the Flyers goalies stopped 8 scoring attempts.  That kept the score 3-0 after two periods of play.

Philly attempted to make a comeback early in the third period. The Flyers had done this in the previous two encounters with the Lightning that forced the games to overtime.  Tampa Bay answered that goal at 7:42 with a power-play marker by F Yanni Gourde (17) but  the Flyers cut the advantage to 4-2 to make it interesting. The Bolts salted the game away with an empty-netter by D Ryan McDonagh (6) at 19:23.

#70, in a back up role for the Bolts, is now 19-4-0 making 28 saves for his 11th consecutive victory.  Flyers G Elliott, who was playing his first game since November 15 due to a lower-body injury and was relieved in net by G Carter Hart for a little over 10 minutes before returning to the fray, combined to stop 29 shots.

The Lightning now come back to the friendly confines of Amalie  Arena.  The next opponent will be the Buffalo Sabres who already have a victory against Tampa Bay this season on their scorecard.

That should make for an interesting encounter.  See you at the rink.

BUFFALO SABRES (W 2-1 SO)

In what seems to be a pattern lately when the Lightning and the Sabres meet on the ice, the game was close and hotly contested.  Tampa Bay came away with a hard-fought 2-1 Shootout victory to increase their winning streak to eight games and their consecutive contests with a point to a dozen tilts.

In the opening 20 minutes, both teams had numerous scoring chances but were turned away by Lightning G Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sabres G Carter Hutton.  Buffalo drew first blood at 18:13 when D Rasmus Dahlin ricocheted a shot off Lightning D Ryan McDonagh that deflected just inside the right post eluding #88.  That gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead as both teams went to the locker room at the end of the first period.

Both teams came out skating from the opening puck-drop.  The Sabres had 17 shots on goal in the first period and the Bolts had 15 pucks on net.

Tampa Bay evened the score at ones at 11:10 of the second period.  F Tyler Johnson jumped on a loose puck in the Bolts zone and set sail for the Buffalo goal.  #9 delivered a perfect pass from the left circle to a streaking F Nikita Kucherov (30) who deposited the puck top shelf.

The key factor in the scoring equation was that Tampa Bay, for one of the few times in the first 30 minutes of play, forced Sabres G Hutton to move side-to-side.  Up until that point, #40 was able to square up to every shot the Lightning threw at him.

The Bolts got a power-play almost immediately after their initial score and #86 came ever so close in giving the Lightning the lead.  Near the end of the two-minute man advantage, Kucherov one-timed the puck off the right post.

Tampa Bay had the better of the play in the middle period.  The Bolts had 14 shots on goal while holding Buffalo to only six that made it through to Vasilevskiy.

The third period was played at playoff intensity.  Both teams ramped up the speed along with the aggressiveness and it showed.  Both goalies were forced to make a plethora of saves to keep their team in the contest which both did and, after 60 minutes, the tilt moved to extra hockey.

In overtime, both teams had chances to put the game in the victory column but both goalies again came up big.  So, the contest moved to the shootout phase.

The Bolts came up big in the Shootout.  F Steven Stamkos opened with a goal and Vasilevskiy stoned Buffalo F Jack Eichel.  In the second round, the Lightning F Brayden Point hit the post but #88 stopped the Sabres F Casey Mittelstadt.  That left it all up to Kucherov and he did not disappoint.

G Vasilevskiy moved to 27-7-4 on the campaign and made 29 saves.  G Hutton took the hard-luck loss but did earn the Sabres a point stopping 39 shots.

As you can tell by the more detailed account of the game, I was in attendance to witness the Lightning victory.  The next opponent for Tampa Bay will be the Los Angeles Kings and I’ll be in the press box as well for that one.  See you all then.

LOS ANGELES KING (W 4-3 SO)

In another entertaining contest that I was able to watch up-close-and-personal, Tampa Bay again had to go to the Shootout to defeat Los Angeles 4-3.  That marked the Bolts ninth consecutive victory and 13th straight game with a point.

It didn’t take the Lightning long to get on the scoreboard.  After a delay of game penalty to the Kings D Dion Phaneuf just 55 seconds into the opening period, the Bolts lethal power-play went to work.

It only took Tampa Bay 10 seconds into the man advantage to take a 1-0 lead.  After winning the initial faceoff, Kucherov delivered a perfect cross-ice pass from the right circle to Stamkos.  #91 then found F Brayden Point (36) just in front of the crease and #21 came back to the short side and roofed it over Los Angeles G Jack Campbell.

The Bolts added another marker at 8:08 of the first period.  F Anthony Cirelli (12) redirected a shot by Lightning D Braydon Coburn from the left point that found its way to the back of the net.  Both teams went to the locker room with Tampa Bay holding a 2-zip advantage after 20 minutes of play.

LA came out flying at the beginning of the middle period.  The Kings test Lightning G Vasilevskiy and #88 had to come up huge twice in the first two minutes of play.

Tampa Bay then picked up the intensity and had three excellent scoring chances in the space of five seconds when three shots in succession all hit the post.  In my 50+ years of watching the NHL, that’s something I have never seen before.

Even with the both teams turning up the heat, it was all about the goalies in the middle period.  Both Tampa Bay G Vasilevskiy and Los Angeles G Campbell posted goose eggs to keep the count at 2-0 in favor of the Bolts.

The final 20 minutes became an offensive explosion and it started with the Kings cutting the lead in half at 5:20.  After D Anton Stralman lost the puck in the Lightning offensive zone, LA came out with a 2-1 break.  F Austin Wagner put a shot on goal that Vasilevskiy turned away but F Alex Iafallo deposited the rebound behind #88.

LA evened the score at 2-all at the 10:30 mark of the third period.  F John Brodzinski scored his first goal of the season when he took a pass from behind the net in the low slot and went top shelf on #88.

Los Angles came all the way back and took the lead at 11:06.  Wagner got his second goal of the evening when #51 took a pass from F Trevor Lewis after Vasilevskiy stopped a shot from the high slot by D Sean Walker.  The rebound went right to #22 who fed Lewis who put the biscuit in an unprotected basket.

Tampa Bay tied the score less than a minute later.  Miller (11) was situated in the low slot and took a perfect pass from Stamkos who was just behind the net on the left.  #10 went to the glove side to tie the score at 12:04 and the game went to extra hockey tied at 3-apiece.

Both goalies came up big in the extra period.  That moved both teams to the Shootout phase and, for the Lightning, the second consecutive game they would be involved in one-on-one hockey.

Both teams were successful in two of their first three attempts.  Stamkos and Kucherov both lit the lamp another a misfire by Point.  In the fourth round, D Victor Hedman scored and #88 turned away the Kings final attempt.

G Vasilevskiy improved to 28-7-4 making 30 saves.  G Campbell was spectacular in defeat turning away 31 shots and earning the Kings a much-needed point.

The Bolts now take to the road for a tilt in the Big Apple with the Rangers in the first leg of a Northeast back-to-back.  The big question, now that Tampa Bay has hit the century mark with 100 points, is will the beat go on?  I’ll see you by your TV to find out.

NEW YORK RANGERS (W 4-3 OT)

Lately, it seems like bonus hockey is in vogue for the Lightning as the Bolts beat the New York Rangers 4-3 in overtime at Madison Square Garden.  I don’t think you’ll get any complaints from any of the Tampa Bay player or coaches about playing extended games as long as they keep winning.

The victory in the Big Apple set a franchise record for most consecutive triumphs with 10 and 14 straight contests with at least one point.  But, as we have seen in the two previous tilts, it took extra time to increase the number on the left side of the dash and it wasn’t without a very controversial ending.

The Lightning started out the first period on fire.  F Tyler Johnson (22) scored at 7:52 to give the Bolts the lead and Miller (12) increased the advantage with a power-play marker at 14:57.  Tampa Bay blistered Ranger G Alexandar Georgiev with a 14-shot barrage and both teams went to the first intermission with the Lightning holding a 2-0 lead.

Now, whatever NY Coach David Quinn said to his troops after the first 20 minutes of play, he needs to bottle it.  The Rangers came out roaring in the middle period and it didn’t take New York long to get on the scoreboard.

The Rangers Mika Zibanejad found a way to get the puck past Bolts G Vasilevskiy just 56 ticks into the middle period to cut the Bolts lead in half.  Tampa Bay regained the two-goal margin when D Dan Girardi (4) lit the lamp at 2:53.

New York answered half a minute later to cut the Lightning advantage to 3-2.  The Rangers came all the way back and tied the score at 3-each at the 14:14 mark of the second period with a little bit of a fluke goal.  #88 made the initial save but the puck hit the post and then deflected off Vasilevskiy’s skate causing it to trickle over the goal line.

From that point on, until the end of regulation, both goalies were unconscious.  Both Georgiev and Vasilevskiy made spectacular save after spectacular save to get the contest to extra time.

Late in overtime, while the Lightning were cycling the puck in the Rangers zone, Kucherov dropped a pass to D Victor Hedman.  Now, it get’s interesting.  Then, #86 just happened to accidentally knock down the Rangers, and former Lightning, F  Vladislav Namestnikov.  This created a great screen that #77 used to his benefit.

If you want to believe this all just happened by chance and not intend, so be it.  Frankly, I would bet money that Kucherov saw what was coming and took advantage of the situation.  Honestly, that was a pick and any member of the Bucs receiving corp would have rated it a perfect 10.

With the pileup of humanity in front of him, Hedman (8) came in uncontested from the right side.  His wrist shot at 3:25 of overtime gave Tampa Bay the victory much to the chagrin and protests of the Rangers players and coaches.

#88 stopped 33 shots and ran his record to 29-7-4 on the season.  Georgiev made 26 saves in a losing cause but did manage to register a point for the Rangers.

Tampa Bay moves on to Boston for the finale of the back-to-back with the Bruins so look for Louis Domingue to be between the pipes.  Then it’s back home for a Saturday evening tussle with the Ottawa Senators.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bolts struggle in Beantown.  The fact that the Lightning, who will be playing their third game in four days and the previous three all going past 60 minutes, may be “Running on Empty” as Jackson Browne would sing.

Am I right? Let’s hope not but I’ll see you at the TV to find out.

BOSTON BRUINS (L 4-1)

As they say, all good things must come to an end and, for the Lightning, it was in Boston.  The Bruins defeated the Bolts 4-1 but the score was no indication of how the game was played.

The Tampa Bay 10-game winning streak came to an end along with their 15 consecutive games with a point.  As I had stated at the end of the Rangers game, my fear was a tired Bolts squad would take the ice at TD Gardens.

My friends, after the first 10 minutes of the contest, even Ray Charles would have seen I was correct in my assessment.  The Lightning were slow and lethargic.  Not surprising with the end of back-to-back road games plus the Bolts had to go to extra hockey in the last three contests.   A recipe for disaster.

One silver lining to Tampa Bay’s overall lackluster performance was the play of G Louis Domingue.  #70 was spectacular between the pipes and was the only real bright spot for the Bolts.

After a scoreless opening 30 minutes, the Bruins broke the ice with a power-play marker at 8:43 of the middle period  Both teams went to the locker room with Boston holding a precarious 1-0 advantage.

To give you an idea of how good Domingue was in the first 40 minutes, catch these stats.  The Lightning net-minder stopped 31 of 32 shots with at least a handful of them where he, as hockey

While Domingue was being peppered by the Bruins, G Tuukka Rask was in the process of pitching a shutout of his own.  The big difference was that #40 only faced nine shots in the first two periods.

Finally, midway through the final period, Domingue succumbed to the Bruins offense barrage.  Boston scores three goals in the space of 1:28 to take a 4-0 lead.

The Bolts finally dented the scoreboard at 13:52.  Cirelli (13) lit the lamp to make the score 4-1 and that’s how the contest would come to a close.

G Rask turned away 20 shots in notching the victory for the Bruins.  G Domingue made 37 saves in defeat and his record fell to 19-5 on the campaign and his 11-game franchise record winning streak came to an end as well.

The Bolts head home for a Saturday evening tilt against Ottawa to begin their next five-game sequence.  In my opinion, this team needs to get home and get some well-deserved rest.

Now, before people start to push the panic button after the Boston defeat, let’s do the math.  Let’s just say that the Bolts averaged seven points every five games they play.  For the ease of computing, if you factor that into an 80 game schedule, that 102 points.

The Lightning, at this point in the season after 65 games, are averaging a shade under 8 points every five contests.  If they just stay at six points per sequence over the last 15 games, that equates to 120 points with two games remaining before the beginning of the playoff.

Believe me when I tell you that there isn’t an organization that would turn down those numbers. Not a snowball’s chance in you know where.

So, with that being said and the Bolts with a 13-point lead over Calgary for home ice in the finals as well as a 17-point advantage over Boston for the best record in the Eastern Conference, let’s just say it now and get it over with.  Tampa Bay is the team to beat for the Stanley Cup, period.

Let’s just sit back and enjoy the last 17 games of the regular season.  Why?  Because the Lightning will have home ice advantage throughout the playoffs and that’s when it will be time to buckle up for the wild ride that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.