Not only has Tampa Bay arrived at the Stanley Cup Final, it has made it a best-of-five series.
The Lightning looked like the Lightning, got to Anton Khudobin early, and clamped down in the third period to take a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a highly entertaining Game 2 Monday.
More good news for the Sons of Jon Cooper: They might get Steven Stamkos back for Game 3, which is Wednesday. And they might not need him, particularly if Nikita Kucherov keeps working like he did Monday.
After a struggle-filled Game 1 — minus-2 in a 4-1 loss, with seven shot attempts blocked in 21 minutes — Kucherov was on it in Game 2. He produced a pair of pretty assists, both on a power play that sat bolt upright in its grave. The Lightning broke an 0-for-15 skid on the man advantage, scoring twice in their first three chances (2 for 4 overall) as part of a 3-0 first-period lead.
Kucherov, who has mixed it up early and often this postseason, took his lumps early. On his first shift, Jamie Benn took him out behind the play, then Mattias Janmark caught the Lightning star with a penalized high stick.
With about eight minutes gone in the first, Kucherov briefly left for the dressing room after crashing into the endboards, following a diving block on a Jamie Oleksiak rush. He and the big Dallas defenseman got tangled, sending the smaller Russian — we’re talking 6-7 against 5-10 here — smack into the boards, torso-first.
“Tough start, I guess,” Kucherov said, explaining that his visor was cracked and needed repair. “I felt good today. We did a good job playing the right way. I guess not much I can say.”
▪ After a first power play fizzled, the Lightning snapped their drought with Brayden Point’s deflected shot from the slot at 11:23. A slick, short pass from Kucherov in the circle to the bumper, where Point’s one-timer ramped off Esa Lindell’s stick. Pressuring the middle was key for the Bolts, who had a net-front scramble moments before.
▪ Tampa Bay scored first for the first time in seven games.
“Just scoring that first goal was big,” Point said. “Just happy to get a goal.”
▪ After Oleksiak’s ill-advised holding call (Dallas’s third minor of the first period), Tampa Bay moved the puck quickly and decisively, Kucherov faking a shot and slipping a cross-ice feed to Ondrej Palat for the 2-0 goal.
Stamkos, who hasn’t played since Feb. 25 because of core muscle surgery and a lower-body injury, skated before the game and could be available for Game 3. According to Sportsnet, if Stamkos plays in this series, it will be the longest gap between games in the modern era, since 1967, for a player prior to playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
If Tampa Bay keeps zipping the puck around with this kind of confidence, it may not need its captain and chief one-time weapon in the left circle, where Palat has been playing.
“We had some good looks during the first game, we just couldn’t score,” Kucherov said. “We just keep it simple. That’s what worked for us today.”
▪ Dallas has to stay out of the box for this to remain a series. The Stars have committed 94 minor infractions, by far the most in the playoffs (second place: Tampa Bay, with 79) and 100 penalties overall (also first on the list).
▪ This is becoming a hateful series. The Stars were upset after Blake Comeau took a high, hard hit from Ryan McDonagh in the second period. Comeau, who laid out Alex Killorn with a blindside hit earlier, missed the rest of the game. After that hit, Pat Maroon ran Khudobin, and an ensuing skirmish saw Corey Perry put Cedric Paquette in a headlock, three Bolts (Maroon, Victor Hedman, Paquette) and two Stars (John Klingberg, Perry) in the box, and Dallas on a power play for Maroon’s goaltender interference.
The mind games continued after Maroon’s possibly intentional dump of a puck onto the Dallas bench in Game 1. Perry was seen rushing Hedman in the first period, getting close to his face and screaming at him, like a passing baserunner shouting “drop it!” at a shortstop.
The hit chart read 51-50, Tampa Bay, and it was the second game that the teams combined for 100-plus. Hedman, on Dallas trying to draw penalties in the second: “I’m sure we would have done the same thing if we were down, 3-0.”
▪ Tampa Bay, which scored four goals in the three previous games combined, pumped in three on its first 10 shots, in a span of 3:53. Did that give the Lightning a sense they had solved Khudobin?
“We don’t think about him at all,” Kucherov said. “We just stick to our game plan. He’s a good goalie, but we don’t think about him.”
Khudobin, so good in Game 1, was swimming at times in Game 2.
▪ Tampa Bay outshot Dallas, 11-2, after Janmark scored at 5:27 of the third period to make it a one-goal game. It was a smothering defensive effort for the Bolts. Dallas couldn’t get Khudobin off the ice until an icing call on Tampa with 1:09 left.
The Stars mustered just 17 shots at even strength, eight of which came in a second period that saw them outshoot the Lightning, 18-5, in all situations. Tampa Bay controlled the shot counts, 14-6 in the first period and 12-5 in the third.
Outside of the skirmish in the second, Tampa Bay took three other minors in that period, and leaned on goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy a bit too much. The third period was unpenalized on both sides.
“After that, we really got back to what makes us successful,” Hedman said, pointing to forechecking and defense. “I like the way we responded.”
The Lightning are now 6-0 in the playoffs after a loss.
▪ Tough end for Klingberg, who set up both Dallas goals (Joe Pavelski deflection of a point shot, Janmark back-door tap-in). After Pavelski, 11 of 15 on faceoffs, won an offensive-zone draw in the final seconds, Klingberg fanned on the shot attempt.
“I just missed it,” he said.
▪ Tyler Seguin hasn’t scored in 11 games (0-1—1), but his all-around game is strong. He’s battling hard on the walls and breaking up plays defensively. He’s willing to throw the body, laying into Hedman on one forecheck. He makes smart decisions, like wheeling the puck out of the zone to start the rush that produced Janmark’s goal.
▪ Fun with video replay: With 10:46 left, Mikhail Sergachev’s shot through traffic got through Khudobin’s five-hole. Blake Coleman was a step offside, clear as day, when Maroon entered the zone.
▪ Another goal for Kevin Shattenkirk (2-8—10 this postseason), who has watched two of his former teams (St. Louis, Washington) win the Cup in the last three years. His one-year, Cup-chasing deal ($1.75 million) has been worth every penny for Tampa Bay.
▪ Tampa Bay went with 12 forwards and six defensemen, sitting Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn and dressing Jan Rutta. Up front, Carter Verhaeghe drew in. Bogosian’s too-aggressive play on the first Dallas goal in Game 1 may have been his ticket to the press box. It was the first time since Game 1 against the Bruins they played 12/6.
Rutta, the Czech blue liner, hadn’t played in nearly seven weeks. He was on the ice late, protecting a one-goal lead.