TAMPA, FL. – It did not take long for the action to get heated up at Amalie Arena on Monday night when the Lightning and Islanders renewed acquaintance.
Off the opening faceoff, Pat Maroon dropped the gloves and went at it with 44-year-old Zdeno Chara. A couple of minutes later, Matthew Barzal scored on a breakaway to give the Islanders a lead. Wasting no time with a response, Mathieu Joseph answered for the Bolts 23 seconds later.
The teams that went seven games in last season’s conference final provided plenty of excitement early and often in what would be a 4-1 Lightning win.
“We obviously have some recent history, so it would figure there would be some fireworks there,” said Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
The win gave the Lightning five out of a possible six points in a three-game home stretch against the Hurricanes, Panthers, and Islanders. Those are three opponents that Jon Cooper’s team defeated in last season’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup.
“If you told me that at the beginning of the three games, we would have taken that all day,” said Cooper. “Those are the teams that you end up seeing at the end. If you want to get there, you have to beat those teams. When you are at home, you definitely have to take those points. And we did that.”
The Lightning head into Thursday night’s game in Philadelphia riding an eight-game points streak (6-0-2). They have compiled this run thanks in large part to responsible play in their own zone and superior goaltending by Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The only time they allowed more than two goals during their current run was a 5-3 win at Ottawa on November 6. The Senators scored their third goal with 16 seconds remaining and had no bearing on the outcome.
“You are giving yourself a chance to get points, and that’s what we are doing,” said Cooper, whose team is 8-3-3 and third in the Atlantic Division with 14 points. “They haven’t all been pretty, but the boys are defending, and if we are not there, Vasy is up to the task to make the save.”
In the games against the Hurricanes, Panthers, and Islanders, three explosive opponents, the Lightning allowed all of five goals. Four were scored in regulation.
“I think each game was a little bit different,” said McDonagh, a 12-year vet. “I think we realize against top teams like this, we have to defend. That has been our recipe the last couple of playoff runs. I think our group has taken a lot of pride in playing well in our own zone.”
The Lightning take a lot of pride when it comes to sticking up for each other. That element underscored their Stanley Cup runs, and defines this group as well.
There was no better example than Monday night when Anthony Cirelli came to the aid of Alex Killorn, who was run into the boards by the Islanders’ Brock Nelson. Cirelli made a beeline for Nelson, dropped the gloves, and let him know that his over-aggressiveness would not be tolerated.
Cirelli, whose goal with 38 seconds remaining in the opening period proved to be the decisive tally, received 17 minutes in penalties – instigator, fighting, misconduct — and ample kudos from appreciative teammates.
“That’s the foundation of our team, sticking up for your teammates,” said McDonagh. “No hesitation at all. Obviously, we’d love to have him on the ice more, but at the end of the day, it is protecting your teammates. In setting a tone like that, it goes a long way for our group.”
After the game in Philly, the Lightning return to Amalie Arena for weekend dates with the Devils (Saturday, 4 p.m.) and the Wild (Sunday, 5 p.m.).
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