The offense suddenly began clicking for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and that’s probably the last thing the Carolina Hurricanes need.
With the Lightning producing on power plays and getting their top players untracked around the net, Tampa Bay appears in good shape heading into Game 5 of the second-round series Tuesday night in Raleigh, N.C.
The Lightning lead the best-of-seven series by 3-1 after capturing a 6-4 victory on home ice in Saturday’s Game 4. But that doesn’t mean the Lightning are entirely comfortable after a wide-open stretch of play in Game 4 even though the outcome went in their favor.
“It’s not ideal,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “We have this true belief: It’s what you keep out of your net, not what you put in the other net. We try to live by that.”
There were lapses in effort, Cooper said, that allowed the Hurricanes to push back. The parts that Cooper liked were when the Lightning used solid defending and checking until eventually skill can take over.
“For this whole series, we’ve competed so hard, and our will has been so strong,” Cooper said.
The Hurricanes, who won the Central Division regular-season title, must win three straight games to extend their season into next week.
They went 20-3-5 at home during the regular season (including 3-1 against Tampa Bay) and won all three home games in the first round against the Nashville Predators, but they’re 0-2 on home ice in this series after losing the first two games by 2-1 scores.
“Emotionally, we just have to stay in it,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “We’ve got to be smarter out there.”
The series had been highlighted by stingy defense and superb goaltending until the fourth game. That’s when the Lightning wiped out a two-goal deficit in the second period.
“You can’t give them too many cracks at it,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “They’ve got guys that can finish.”
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, with two goals and an assist, was “borderline unstoppable” for segments of the game, Cooper said.
Tampa Bay converted on half of its six power plays.
“We knew coming in, we can’t take penalties against these guys,” Brind’Amour said. “You can’t take the risk, I guess is the best way to put it.”
Carolina had succeeded in keeping the first three games tight, limiting the Lightning to six total goals, including three on eight power-play opportunities. Still, Tampa Bay took a 2-1 series lead as the Hurricanes managed only four goals of their own through regulation. In Game 4, Carolina scored four goals in the game’s first 33 minutes against Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
But once the Lightning got some momentum, it was difficult for the Hurricanes to put the clamps on.
“If you give that caliber of power play that many chances, it’s not a recipe for success,” Slavin said. “We just have to play more disciplined and play hard and play smart as well and not give them chances that they don’t need.”
The Hurricanes figure to return to rookie goalie Alex Nedeljkovic in net after Petr Mrazek played both games in Tampa, Fla.
Lightning defenseman David Savard made his series debut after missing the first three games with an upper-body injury. He logged more than 13 1/2 minutes, though he ended up in the penalty box twice.
“For him to come in and contribute the way he did, that’s why we got him at the (trade) deadline,” Cooper said. “It’s tough to come right into the middle of a series and play the minutes that he did.”
The Hurricanes could receive a boost if winger Nino Niederreiter, who was injured in practice a day before the series began, can make it back. He was on the ice for Monday’s practice.
If Game 6 is necessary, it will be held Thursday night in Tampa.
–Field Level Media