Even with the playoffs still over a week away, the Tampa Bay Lightning sure are playing as if they’ve already started.
Mike Smith made 31 saves to earn his first shutout in over a year and help the Lightning to a 2-0 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night.
“We’ve been playing well and I think we have out structure back,” head coach Guy Boucher said. “I’ve always had confidence in Smitty. He’s played some great games for us.”
With home ice up for grabs through the first round of the postseason, Sunday’s win brought Tampa Bay to within one point of fourth-place Pittsburgh with 99 points, the team’s second-highest single-season total in franchise history.
Vincent Lecavalier left the game early after taking a high stick to the face and did not return, but not before opening the game’s scoring early in the first period with a power-play goal.
Nate Thompson added an empty-net goal with 22 seconds to play to seal the victory for Tampa Bay, winners of five straight games. The Lightning’s current win streak is the team’s longest since it won six in a row from Jan. 18 to Feb. 1.
Smith kept the Lightning ahead with a series of spectacular saves, including a number of them in the third period. With the Lightning clinging to a one-goal lead late in the game, Smith stopped a number of solid Chicago scoring chances from in close, including making a great pad save on Michael Frolik midway through the second period to preserve the one-goal lead.
Perhaps the biggest save of the night, however, came on Blackhawks wing Marian Hossa in the game’s final minute. Hossa skated in and one-timed a feed through the slot, but Smith came square to the puck to make the save with the left pad.
“It was nice to get in and contribute to the team’s success,” Smith said. “We played a great game, and it showed in the end. I had good positioning all night and let a lot of pucks hit me. I just made some big saves when I had to.”
Lecavalier put the game’s first goal on the board to put the Lightning up 1-0 in the opening frame. After Simon Gagne won the puck off the draw, he sent a pass over to Martin St. Louis, who found the Lightning captain stationed in front of the net before beating Corey Crawford with a power-play goal at 7:56.
Gagne finished the night with two assists, and St. Louis added a helper as well, as both players each extended their respective points streaks to six games apiece.
“I thought we played a very well-structured period in the first,” St. Louis said. “We were fresh and played with a lot of energy. I think that goal on the power play gave us some momentum and gave us the start we wanted.”
Crawford finished the night with 13 saves despite allowing the game’s opening goal to Lecavalier, who now has 13 goals and 25 points in his past 25 games.
Much like Chicago, the Lightning had their fair number of opportunities as well to go up by two, but couldn’t seem to get a fair bounce in their favor. Adam Hall came close to increasing the advantage after attempting to poke the puck into the net after Crawford lost track of it in the crease, but came away empty. Sean Bergenheim was next, but his shot from the left circle with six and a half minutes to play rang off the post.
Thompson was finally able to connect and provide Tampa Bay the insurance it needed, potting a goal into a vacant net with 19:38 to end things.
The Lightning were outshot for a sixth straight game, with Chicago holding a 31-15 advantage in shots on goal. Tampa Bay is 5-1-0 in that span.
“It’s something that we’re constantly working on,” Hall said. “We have to go out there and play smart.”
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