Belief a main reason for Lightning’s third-period life
TAMPA, Fla. — He was a wicked wall that, for most of Friday night, refused to crack. Time after time, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Michal Neuvirth withstood waves of pressure from a dizzying blue blur at Amalie Arena, standing firm like a stone barrier in a hurricane.
Perhaps in past seasons, perhaps in past months, such wizardry in net would have frustrated the Tampa Bay Lightning to a point where a winnable game would have become a loss. After all, strong goaltenders can work voodoo between the pipes and erode an opponent’s will. Especially in the second period, when the Lightning set a franchise record for most shots in a period with 27, Neuvirth was Harry Houdini on skates, contorting his body to keep what could have been a four- or five-goal Tampa Bay lead to a one-all tie heading into the third.
"We just had this calming influence in the room where, heading into third periods, especially lately, whether we’re up or it’s a close game, that we’re going to stick with our structure and it’s going to work," said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, after he ripped a game-winning goal in the third period, giving Tampa Bay a 2-1 victory to improve to 27-12-4 with 58 points.
This is what the Lightning have become: Sometimes imperfect, sometimes frustrating, sometimes prone to playing down to an opponent’s level –even when it comes to lowly Buffalo, which has an Atlantic Division-worst 31 points — but confidence is no issue. In a rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, their greatest ingredient for success is spelled b-e-l-i-e-f, and it makes their chase for a t-i-t-l-e more real by the week.
Friday, simple math was their guide. Neuvirth entered 3-10-1 and without a victory since Nov. 18 against the San Jose Sharks. The Lightning kept chip, chip, chipping away against him, like a chisel determined to break through, and they held a ridiculous 35-13 shot edge after the second period.
Finally, the work was rewarded.
Late in the third period, Alex Killorn made a slick pass to Jonathan Drouin, who glided down the ice and fed Steven Stamkos during a 2-on-1 sequence. Stamkos thought about passing the puck back to Drouin, but since the Lightning had so much trouble against Neuvirth, Stamkos decided he should take matters into his own hands.
There was the goal, with 5:18 to play. There was the celebration, relief after so many near misses. There was the reward, sweet payoff after being robbed so many times.
The wall crumbled. The deed was done.
"We just realize, the more you shoot, your percentage of scoring is higher," Killorn said. "We knew he was playing well, and we knew we were going to have to get him moving. On that two-on-one, Jonny (Drouin) made a great play to throw it over and get him moving. He played great all game, and we just tried to keep scoring."
Beware of Tampa Bay late. The Lightning have outscored opponents 51-36 in the third period. Likely, that difference will grow, because success leads to more success, the effect like fuel on a crackling fire, and Tampa Bay has learned how to find its second, third and fourth winds in the closing minutes.
"You’re just hoping that we get one," said Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who had 20 saves. "Their goalie obviously played well, and so you just kind of sit there and hope and wait. And thankfully, we were able to get one in."
They did, like they thought all along. So this is also what the Lightning have become: Many times resourceful, many times opportunistic, many times able to scratch out a victory — especially at home, where they’re 16-4-1 — and confidence is the main reason why.
Like other contenders, they’re not without imperfections. Like other dreamers, they’re not without faults.
As coach Jon Cooper said Friday, "Every game isn’t an oil painting."
He’s right. But most times a messy work of art will do, as long as resilience leads to beauty in the end.