TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning prioritized defense over scoring on the way to winning their second Stanley Cup title last season.
The reigning champions still feel that’s the recipe for success in the playoffs, however that doesn’t mean one of the NHL’s most skilled offensive teams won’t instinctively change gears and revert to old ways when needed.
“There was a time we were kind of the greatest show on ice a few years ago, and many times those ended up in disappointing playoff outs,” coach Jon Cooper said.
“Probably why we’ve had success the last couple of years is because we’ve had the ability to win different ways. If you want to get into a shootout, we have a group that can do it that way,” he said. “But that’s not ideal. We really have this belief that it’s what you keep out of your net, not how much you put in the other net. We try and live by that.”
The Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes each scored four times during the second period of Game 4 in their second-round matchup Saturday. Tampa Bay wound up with a 6-4 win and took a 3-1 series lead.
The Hurricanes scored four times to build a two-goal lead before unraveling. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Steven Stamkos countered for Tampa Bay in the closing minutes of the second period to put the Lightning up for good.
Tampa Bay had the firepower to adjust when Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the league’s best goaltenders, was under siege.
Game 5 is Tuesday night at Carolina, where Tampa Bay won the first two games of the best-of-seven matchup.
“Does it always go as planned? No,” Cooper said of the approach that’s served his team well in winning a franchise-best five consecutive playoff series. “But if you want to go far, it’s just the mentality you have to have.”
Kucherov and Stamkos each had two goals and an assist in the Game 4 win.
“We’ve been in multiple situations throughout the runs that this core has been through. We’ve seen it all. Nothing’s going to really surprise this group,” Stamkos said. “At that point, you have to realize why you’re down and change some things on the fly.”
The Hurricanes will have to win three straight to come back and win the series, a daunting task considering Tampa Bay is 10-0 in games following a playoff loss since beginning its 2020 Stanley Cup run.
“We’ve got to be way more disciplined. … We made it a little too hard on ourselves by taking too many penalties,” Carolina forward Jesper Fast said. “I really believe if we play our way and stay out of the box, we’re going to turn this series around.”
Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour agrees that to have a chance to rebound, his team will need to limit Tampa Bay’s power-play opportunities moving forward. The Lightning has five man-advantage goals in the past two games.
“You can’t give them too many cracks at it. … They’ve got guys that can finish, that’s what they do,” Brind’Amour said.
Nedeljkovic started the first six games of the playoffs, but the Hurricanes turned to Mrazek after losing the first two games of this series at home. Mrazek won Game 3, stopping 35 of 37 shots in a 3-2 overtime win , but wasn’t nearly as effective last Saturday.
Meanwhile, forward Nino Niederreiter practiced after sitting out the past four games with an upper-body injury. The Hurricanes could use his scoring, however Brind’Amour said it was too early to predict if he’ll play Tuesday night.
Either way, Brind’Amour is confident Carolina will respond to the pressure of an elimination game.
“I actually think they are easier to play because you know there is no tomorrow,” the Hurricanes coach said.
“Everyone says it, but this is it,” Brind’Amour added. “You’ve got to lay it all on the line. … I’m sure we’ll give everything we have.”