The Tampa Bay Lightning looked like a team at the end of an exhausting, ten-day trip to the other side of the North American continent when they played the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.
The Bolts performed as if they were missing five regulars – J.T. Brown and Brett Connolly with upper-body injuries, Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn nursing lower-body ailments and Victor Hedman out four-to-six weeks with a fractured finger – at Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center.
After taking three of four games to secure a winning record on its opening road series of the season, Tampa Bay fell apart against the Wild. The Lightning surrendered four goals in the first period and never threatened to get back in the game, falling 7-2 to Minnesota.
The Lightning finish the road trip with a 3-2-0 record and take home six of a possible ten points.
“It’s just one of those games. Stuff like that happens,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “So, you just turn the page and move on and look forward to Arizona.”
Tampa Bay starting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov had won nine straight against the Wild entering Saturday’s game, but, after giving up four goals on eight shots in the first, Nabokov (four saves) was replaced by Ben Bishop with 2:45 remaining in the first period
Bishop, however, didn’t fare much better, allowing three goals on 14 shots over two-plus periods of action.
“This is our ninth game. For eight games, our goaltending has been outstanding. Say whatever you like, that duo has been really good for us,” Cooper said. “When we’ve broken down as a team, which we have, they have bailed us out. Would those guys say they could have had a better game tonight? Maybe, but if you’re not going to be at your best, do it all in the same game.”
Minnesota (4-2-0, 8 points) had yet to lose at home this season, and Marco Scandella made sure the Wild kept that streak going, stuffing a shot under the legs of Nabokov to give his team the game’s opening goal 7:37 into the game. Assisted by Jason Pominville and Zach Parise, Scandella made a nice individual play to go around Matt Carle for his first score this season.
Thirty-nine seconds later, Minnesota went up 2-0, Mikko Koivu picking out a spot on the near post and hitting his target. Thomas Vanek robbed Andrej Sustr of the puck deep in the Bolts’ zone and passed to Koivu on the goal line. Vanek created a diversion at the back post, and Koivu snapped one past Nabokov from a sharp angle.
With the Lightning wobbling, Anton Stralman gave his team a lift with his first goal of the season at 11:04 of the opening period. The Lightning (5-3-1, 11 points) had the puck in the Minnesota zone, and Stralman got behind the Wild defense in front of goal. Eric Brewer hit Stralman with an accurate pass, and the Swedish defender moved the puck from his forehand to his backhand before sliding it past Minnesota goaltender Darcy Kuemper (16 saves).
Brewer assisted Stralman’s goal along with Tyler Johnson, who registered a point for the sixth game in a row.
Minnesota retook a two-goal advantage less than two minutes later following another poor giveaway by the Lightning deep in their zone, leading to a clear look from the slot for Erik Haula. Nino Niederreiter pounced on the Bolts turnover behind the net and fired in front of goal to find Haula, and Haula wristed past Nabokov to put the Wild up 3-1.
Minnesota scored goal number four of the first period off a faceoff, the puck pushing ahead to Jason Zucker, who wristed a shot along the side boards between the near post and Nabokov for a 4-1 Wild lead.
At that point, Cooper made the switch, pulling Nabokov in favor of Bishop.
“There’s so many things that go into making a goalie change,” Cooper said. “We had a back-to-back last night in which (Bishop) saw 40-plus shots. We’ve got a plan of what we’re going to do through the season, and (Nabokov’s) a vet. He’s got to fight through things like that. I felt for him though. He’s such a great guy in our locker room and he’s played so well for us and he’s done so many good things.”
A night earlier in Winnipeg, Bishop won his fourth game of 2014-15, but he wasn’t able to stem Minnesota’s momentum.
Tampa Bay had gone 12-consecutive games dating back to last season without surrendering more than three goals, but that streak vanished in the first period against Minnesota.
The Wild continued pouring it on in the second. Parise fanned on his first attempt from the slot but was true on his second try, lifting a wrist shot by Bishop for a 5-1 Minnesota lead.
Minnesota made it 6-1 after Vanek and Jared Spurgeon worked a two-on-one breakaway to perfection, Vanek passing to an open Spurgeon and Spurgeon tipping the puck in.
Nikita Kucherov scored his first goal of the season to cut into Minnesota’s lead. Stralman was the catalyst again, his slap shot from the point heading toward goal, and Kucherov, providing traffic in front of Kuemper, deflecting the shot five hole through Kuemper and into the net.
Combined with three assists Friday night in Winnipeg, Kucherov recorded four points in two games.
Stralman earned his sixth assist of the season and was +1 for the game.
“It’s a 7-2 game, you find a way to come out +1, that’s pretty impressive, and play 20-plus minutes or whatever he plays,” Cooper said. “It’s not like he plays one shift a period.”
Zucker scored his second goal of the game and team-high fourth of the season with a short-handed score near the end of the third to cap Minnesota’s assault of the Bolts goal.
Tampa Bay registered a season-low 19 shots. Minnesota wasn’t much better with just 22 shots, but seven of them found the back of the net.Eighteen shots missed the net, 18,” Cooper said. “That’s as many shots as we had on net.”
The Lightning fly back to Tampa Bay late Saturday night after ten days on the road. The Bolts return to action Tuesday, October 28 against the Arizona Coyotes at Amalie Arena (7:30 p.m. puck drop).