Having lost two-straight games and slipping further in the Atlantic Division standings, the Tampa Bay Lightning began their West Coast swing in desperate need of a victory to keep pace with the playoff contenders in the East and build a bit of momentum within the team.
The Bolts found what they were looking for in Orange County, downing Anaheim 2-1 at the Honda Center to improve to 12-11-3 on the season.
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop stopped 32-of-33 Ducks shots to win his 10th game of the season — Bishop has given up two goals or less in 10 of his last 12 starts now – and a pair of talented Jonathans, Drouin and Marchessault, scored goals to provide the Bolts the only offense they would need.
The Lightning continue their trip through the Golden State with two days off before back-to-backs against the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.
Can the Bolts keep piling up points on the road?
We’ll look at last night’s important win and what conclusions we can draw for the future in today’s 3 Things.
1. CALIFORNIA LOVE
Tampa Bay has been frustratingly inconsistent through the season’s first 25 games, but one constant has prevailed thus far in 2015-16: the Lightning love playing the Pacific.
Tampa Bay improved to 4-0-0 against Pacific Division teams this season following Wednesday’s 2-1 victory. In beating Calgary, Los Angeles and reigning Western Conference runner-up Anaheim twice now, the Lightning have outscored Pacific opponents 12-3.
With the Lightning still searching for the steady play that carried them to one of the best records in the NHL and a spot in the Stanley Cup Final a season ago, perhaps this West Coast swing came at an opportune time for the Bolts.
“We’re coming in (to Anaheim) a .500 team,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Especially dropping our last two, we thought we had a little bit of momentum going; we’d won three in a row. We had to stop the bleeding. To come on a trip like this and get two points early sure gives us a little momentum going in to San Jose.”
The Lightning swept the season series with Anaheim by a 7-1 margin and continued their recent success against the Ducks. Tampa Bay has won four in a row and earned at least a point in its last 11 versus Anaheim, going 7-0-4 over that stretch.
2. LAST PERIOD LOCKDOWN
One more trend has developed in a season filled with unpredictability: once the Lightning enter the third period with the lead, they don’t relinquish it.
Eight times this season Tampa Bay has been ahead after 40 minutes of play.
Eight times this season Tampa Bay has won when ahead after 40 minutes of play.
The Lightning improved to 8-0-0 in this category after its 2-1 lead going into the second intermission at Anaheim held up over the third.
The Bolts had to work hard to preserve Wednesday’s advantage. The Ducks peppered Bishop with 12 shots in the third period on their way to 33 for the game. Anaheim had a pair of third-period power plays that tested the Bolts’ penalty kill, which had been hemorrhaging goals of late, giving up five on seven opponent power plays in the two games prior to playing Anaheim.
The Ducks came close to leveling the score, hitting a post in the closing moments to put a scare into the Bolts, but Bishop was brilliant again like he’s been the majority of the season, making 32 saves to improve his personal record against Anaheim to 6-0-1.
And the Lightning penalty kill redeemed itself after a horrible two-game stretch, going 4-for-4 on the night.
“(Anaheim) made a big push at the end, but you need your goaltender to be your best player,” Cooper said. “And when he is, usually good things can happen, and that’s what happened tonight.”
3. DROUIN FLOURISHES IN RETURN
Jonathan Drouin missed the past six games and 11 of the last 15 entering the Anaheim game due to an injury, but on Wednesday, it looked like the second-year forward had never left.
Drouin scored the Lightning’s opening goal and supplied the vital assist on Jonathan Marchessault’s power-play game-winner to head the Bolts’ offensive attack.
“For missing as much as he has with the injury, to come back and have a game like that, that’s a really good sign,” Cooper said.
Drouin combined with Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov to provide the Lightning a line that would give the Ducks fits all night. The trio connected early in the second period to get the Bolts on the board, Kucherov keeping the puck in the slot for Namestnikov, who saw Drouin with a better, clearer angle to shoot and pushed the puck his way. Drouin beat Ducks goalie John Gibson to the far post from the circle for his second goal of the season.
The Drouin-Namestnikov-Kucherov line would continue to pressure Anaheim throughout the game and was the Lightning’s best line by far Wednesday evening.
“There was not a whole lot going on, but when (Drouin) got that first goal, it just seemed like it was a weight off everybody’s shoulders,” Cooper said. “That line started flying out there. All three of those guys, they’ve all got speed, they’ve all got skill and they can play the game.”
The Lightning have been changing personnel on their lines all season in hopes of finding the right combination.
They may have found a good one in Anaheim with Drouin, Namestnikov and Kucherov, a trio of youngsters – all 23 years old or less – with an enormous amount of scoring potential.