By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – It’s not like the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t take ample shot attempts while suffering a 5-1 loss at the hands of the red-hot, league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning at PNC Arena on Tuesday.
In fact, the Hurricanes put 31 shots on net, two more than the Lightning, but they had 22 more blocked and missed on top of that with 23 others.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy earned his eighth win of the season, best in the NHL, while Carolina’s Scott Darling suffered his second loss in as many games, making 27 saves throughout.
Defenseman Jaccob Slavin tallied the lone goal for Carolina, his second of the season while Tampa Bay spread the wealth with five different scorers – Tyler Johnson, Mikhail Sergachev, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Callahan, and Nikita Kuchrov – bulging the twine.
“I think we just gotta work on finishing pucks,” Slavin said.
“We had our chances tonight and we gotta make sure we put them in the back of the net.”
Carolina had opportunities to take the lead in the first period, but a shot off the post from Elias Lindholm on the power play and a Vasilevskiy save on a Jordan Staal redirect kept the game scoreless.
While Darling cut the angles down to keep the Lightning’s top line of Stamkos, Kucherov and Namestnikov off the sheet early on, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill which hadn’t allowed a goal to date, was unable to keep Johnson from putting away a rebound in the crease.
Johnson’s fourth goal of the season put Tampa Bay ahead 1-0 with 35 seconds remaining in the opening period.
With Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman serving a slashing penalty, Carolina’s struggles on the power play continued with shots that went wide along with a shot off the post from Sebastian Aho.
The Hurricanes eventually finished 0-for-4 with the man-advantage, and battled to get shots through to the net at even strength as Tampa Bay worked diligently to clog the shooting lanes all game.
The Lightning extended their lead as the midpoint of the period approached.
Alex Killorn’s rush into the Hurricanes’ zone towards the net resulted in a Darling pad save, but was kept alive with a backhand pass across the low slot from Johnson to Stamkos.
Tampa Bay’s leading scorer found Sergachev open on the right point to tee up a shot that beat Darling and put Tampa Bay ahead 2-0 at the 9:13 mark.
A few minutes later, even with heavy traffic in his crease, Vasilevskiy managed to deny Justin Williams a rebound attempt off Jeff Skinner’s snap shot from the left faceoff dot.
Tempers flared during a scrum along the boards that followed and resulted in offsetting roughing minors to Hedman and Williams.
Tampa Bay carried its two-goal advantage into the third period.
Playing to its strength of exploding offensively late in games, Carolina pulled to within one at the 3:23 mark.
Slavin connected with a wrist shot through traffic on a setup from defensive partner Brett Pesce following a scramble in front of the Tampa Bay goal as the puck came off Josh Jooris’ stick.
“It was definitely a little bit of a scramble,” the Hurricanes D-man said.
“Once Pesche gave it to me, I was thinkin’ ‘put it on net’. There was a lot of bodies in there and hopefully it goes in. Then it went in.”
Both teams traded possessions and shots that either went wide or were stopped by Darling and Vasilevskiy.
“I didn’t think we were as good as we can be with the puck offensively,” Carolina head coach Bill Peters said.
“I didn’t think we executed. When I say that offensively, I mean starting in the defensive zone with good execution, coming through the neutral zone together with speed and numbers. I didn’t think we did that until the last half of the last period of the game.”
With just under three minutes remaining, Carolina couldn’t take full advantage of using the extra skater as Stamkos got a hold of the puck inside the Hurricanes blue line and snapped in an insurance goal that put Tampa Bay up 3-1 with 2:33 remaining.
With Darling on the bench again, Carolina valiantly worked to cut the deficit with the extra skater, but a blocked shot in front of the Tampa Bay net, and an outlet pass from Chris Kunitz allowed Ryan Callahan to skate in uncontested to score his first of the season.
Appearing as through the game was over with many of the 10,498 fans in attendance clearing the stands, Tampa Bay didn’t quit as Stamkos set up Kucherov to beat Darling high with four seconds remaining to finalize the four-goal margin of victory.
It was Kucherov’s 11th goal of the season, a league-best total to date.
The final result highlighted how much a talented and motivated team wanted to win and took advantage of chances when afforded to do so.
For Carolina, the final result indicated there was work to do before hosting St. Louis on Friday and Anaheim on Sunday.
“I think a lot of their opportunities came from our mistakes,” Slavin concluded.
“We just gotta clean up our transition game through the neutral zone…They definitely have a lot of talent. They’re a good team with a lot of skill and speed all the way through the lineup.”
Notables: Lindholm played in his 300th NHL game and registered three shots on goal to go with two hits and two takeaways, while winning 7-of-10 faceoffs. He led Carolina with nine shot attempts as an additional two were blocked and four missed the mark…Williams also had nine shot attempts with three making it on net, four blocked, and two going wide.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport