Luck swings back in Lightning's favor before five-game road trip

BY foxsports • December 12, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. -- To most reasonable eyes, the Tampa Bay Lightning were lucky on Thursday to snap a two-game losing skid in regulation. To most reasonable eyes, they were benefactors of kind bounces on a pair of Nikita Kucherov goals.

So what?

Tampa Bay's 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena resembled more mud wrestling than a work by Monet. Still, few will recall the lack of beauty that came with the two points gained. All will remember that the two points earned were the most important development after the Lightning entered the night in need of momentum before a five-game road trip begins Saturday in Washington.

Their mission was accomplished, period. Search long and hard: There's still no column for style points in the NHL standings.

"For some reason, we can't score as many goals as we scored in games earlier in the season," Kucherov said. "I'm just glad tonight the lucky bounces found us."

True, but luck is subjective. Someone's luck is another's opportunity. Someone's luck is another's opening to make the most of timing and circumstance.

Of late, luck had swung against the Lightning. There were goals in recent games scored by opponents that hit off the sticks of Tampa Bay players, agonizing friendly fire, including an instance Thursday when Carolina's third-period goal to tie the score at one ricocheted off defenseman Victor Hedman.

Luck is part of hockey.

Thursday, bounces went the Lightning's way.

With 6:35 gone in the third period, and with Carolina goaltender Cam Ward twisting his body into a sailor's hitch, defenseman Anton Stralman dumped the puck near the net on a power play. Rather than retrieving the puck behind the goal, Ward lost track of his target as it wandered in front of the net, before Kucherov glided and tapped it in for an easy score.

Later, with 19:29 gone in the third period, Kucherov tried to slip a pass to center Tyler Johnson. Instead, the puck smacked against the skate of defenseman Ron Hainsey and trickled past Ward, the scene resembling something out of a pinball machine.

Luck? More like relief.

"I thought the guys did well tonight," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It was a bit of a character test."

That's the larger point in Tampa Bay's victory. The Lightning entered Thursday with their backs pressed against an alley wall after losing consecutive games to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. They had dropped three of four contests dating back to a loss at the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 2.

Center Steven Stamkos defined the moment's urgency earlier in the week by saying good teams don't lose three consecutive games. The Lightning, though near the top of the Eastern Conference with 39 points, had sputtered like a luxury car low on gas throughout most of this four-game homestand.

Character test? You bet, especially when a gritty effort was needed to keep two straight losses from becoming three for the first time this season.

Sure, Tampa Bay received the lift it needed. Still, a revival came with plenty of sweat.

Ward was fantastic in making 25 saves. The Hurricanes, who entered 28th in the NHL with an average of 2.18 goals per game, provided ample pressure of their own in forcing Evgeni Nabokov to make 29 stops. The Lightning never coasted against the worst the Eastern Conference has to offer.

"This was a big game for us," Stamkos said. "It's not a must-win, but it's a game that we wanted to win to feel good about ourselves heading in (before the road trip). Like we said, we don't want to lose three in a row. So it was a good response."

Oh, a strong response was necessary.

Can you imagine if the Lightning had jetted north with another loss and fresh questions? Can you imagine if they had squandered another chance to earn points with much more significant roadblocks to come in the next week and a half: The Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders?

Can you imagine if the fortuitous bounces had not gone Tampa Bay's way, if two losses had turned to three and the moment's reality had been much different?

Look, the Lightning have weaknesses. They need faster starts. They played down to their competition throughout the most recent homestand far too often. They must be cleaner on defense and show more urgency near the opponent's net.

But here's one thing they must never do: Apologize for so-called luck. Instead, they must embrace it and continue on their way, no questions asked, no looking back.

Take the goals however they come. Take the two points however they're earned.

"We had lost two games at home, and that was important for us to get this W," Kucherov said. "We're looking forward to the next game."

Rightfully so, there's no "sorry" necessary in that comment.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.



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