TAMPA, Fla. – By scoring the game-tying and winning goals Vincent Lecavalier broke open the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2007-08 campaign right where he left off last season. On the power of Lecavalier’s first two goals of the year, the Lightning skated to a 3-1 opening night victory against the New Jersey Devils at the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday night.
Kicking off their 15th season in the National Hockey League, Tampa Bay opened their 82-game schedule with the first of four matchups against the Devils.
The Lightning put early pressure on the opposition as Devils defenseman Paul Martin served a hooking penalty. After a Filip Kuba saw a blast from the left point deflected by New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur, newcomer Jan Hlavac looked to give the Lightning an early lead. With Hlavac and Brad Richards starting a back-and-forth passing play high in the offensive zone, Hlavac put a hard shot on Brodeur but the puck was covered for the save.
Despite outshooting New Jersey early in the first, Tampa Bay found themselves fighting back from a one-goal deficit when Brian Gionta opened the scoring. Connecting with the man advantage, Gionta converted a shot by Zach Parise in front of goaltender Johan Holmqvist. Falling to his knees after skating the puck out of the right corner, Parise put a backhanded shot on Holmqvist that Gionta tipped for the score.
Late in the frame Holmqvist denied Parise on one of the Devils best scoring chances of the night. As Travis Zajac skated down the left side he dropped a pass back to Parise. The third-year winger fired a low shot from the faceoff circle, but Holmqvist denied the attempt.
Minutes into the second period Brodeur came up with a save on forward Nick Tarnasky to keep the Devils in the lead. Taking control of the puck at the blueline, Tarnasky fired a hard wrist shot from high in the zone but was denied by a Brodeur glove save.
Following the play Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis combined for a strong chance against the Devils. From deep in the zone, Lecavalier dished a pass across the slot to St. Louis at the top of the right faceoff circle. New Jersey carried the rebound to the opposite end of the rink, but Holmqvist stood tall to make a save on Gionta.
Despite his goaltending efforts, Brodeur would only be able to hold Lecavalier and the Lightning off the board through the middle of the contest. Connecting at 9:35 of the second frame, Lecavalier notched his first goal of the season to tie the game at one. As Lecavalier carried the puck into the zone through the right faceoff circle, he dragged his left toe and dropped down to lean into a shot that he fired between Brodeur’s legs.
With the teams skating into the final frame tied at one the Lightning went on to out-shoot the Devils 9-7 through the final 20 minutes of play, scoring twice to seal the victory.
Michel Ouellet had one of the strongest chances to give Tampa Bay the lead early in the period with an attempt at the side of the crease. With Ouellet skating to the left of Brodeur, Richards threaded the puck through the Devils defense from the left point. Ouellet quickly re-directed the tape-to-tape pass with a backhand attempt, but Brodeur came up with a glove save.
As the teams continued playing a back-and-forth matchup, Lecavalier broke the tie with 3:52 remaining in the contest. From the left point, St. Louis made a pass down to Vaclav positioned to the right of Brodeur. Pulling the Devils netminder to the right post, Prospal opted to pass to Lecavalier who was open at the left faceoff circle. Lecavalier fired a one-timed shot into the open side of the net for the score.
“It was huge, he (Lecavalier) scored to tie the game up in the second period,” Holmqvist said. “We had some pressure on them in the second period and it was really good for the game. It was fun to see – it was a beautiful goal, that second goal.”
Lecavalier entered the contest as the leading scorer against the Devils, improving to 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) through 33 career games. Last season, Lecavalier tied Richards with a team-leading five points (one goal, four assists) through four regular season matchups. The Lightning center is coming off a personal-best 108-point, 52-goal campaign in 2006-07.
“He’s a good hockey player,” Devils forward John Madden said of Lecavalier. “You don’t get 52 goals for no reason. You combine all his talent with his hard work, and he’s going to get his chances. He’s persistent and he comes to play.”
Following up the winning goal, Prospal added the insurance goal with an empty-net marker at 19:02 of the third. The Lightning winger fired a shot from just outside the blueline to seal the score at 3-1 with his first goal of the season.
Despite being held off the scoreboard, Richards led the Lightning with four shots on goal in the contest. Four skaters finished the contest with a plus-three plus/minus rating, including defenseman Paul Ranger who led all skaters with five blocked shots.
Although the Lightning were out-shot in the contest, 27-24, Holmqvist came up with a number of solid saves to earn his first victory of the year. The Tampa Bay goaltender stopped 26 shots in the contest to earn his third career win against New Jersey. Last season Holmqvist played to a 2-1 record through three starts against the Devils, posting a 1.30 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage.
“It was a big game and it felt good,” Holmqvist said. “I think we played a solid game, and I think we did a solid job defensively, too, especially on the power play.”
“We played better in the second half,” Head Coach John Tortorella said. “We found a way to win and that’s the most important thing in this league, is finding a way. Your game break is ‘Get the job done.’ We’ll take the win and we’ve got a number of things to work on, that’s for sure.”
With the win, Tampa Bay improved to 8-4-2 through 14 season openers, including 8-4-2 in home openers. The Lightning have won each of their previous five home openers, dating back to 2002-03 against the Florida Panthers.
The Lightning continue their three-game home stand at the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday, October 6 against the division rival Atlanta Thrashers. The clubs will face off for the first of eight meetings this season.
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