Three down, one to go.
The Tampa Bay Lightning continued their second-round success on Sunday afternoon when they defeated the Florida Panthers 5-1 at AMALIE Arena. With the win, the Bolts now hold a 3-0 lead over the Cats heading into Game 4 on Monday night.
NHL teams that take a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series hold an all-time record of 197-4 (.980). The Lightning have been up 3-0 in a series on four different occasions in franchise history and have won all of them.
Tampa Bay opened the scoring 6:39 into the first period when Corey Perry scored the first goal of the game for the Bolts for the third time in as many games with his team-leading third goal of the second round. It was Perry's fifth goal of the playoffs, tying him with Ross Colton for the team lead.
After Sam Bennett was called for holding with 8:54 left in the opening period, the Lightning's top power-play unit looked extremely sharp, but couldn't convert. Fifteen seconds after Reinhart left the box, the Bolts kept the positive momentum going and Perry scored to make it 1-0.
It was Ryan McDonagh who took a pass from Nikita Kucherov and fired a shot at the Panthers net. Steven Stamkos and Perry were right there providing plenty of traffic in front before Perry got a piece of McDonagh's shot to beat Sergei Bobrovsky.
Already in a 2-0 hole in the series, the Panthers weren't going to just hand the game away to Tampa Bay and they got things tied just 2:46 later when Sam Reinhart scored a power-play goal.
The teams went into the intermission tied at one before the Bolts came out and took control of the game in the second period.
Just 2:54 into the middle frame, Erik Cernak took a pass at the top of the left circle before skating downhill and firing a perfect shot over the glove of Bobrovsky into the top-right corner. It looked like a goal scorer's goal for the big defenseman, who placed the puck perfectly with what would eventually serve as the game-winning goal.
"It feels amazing," Cernak said. "I don't always score a lot of goals, so this one is special for me, but I'm glad for a win. Everybody did a good job tonight."
After Cernak gave the Lightning the lead, it was Stamkos's turn to get on the board just 7:29 later. It all started on the opposite end with a big penalty kill from Tampa Bay. After Aaron Ekblad made a seam pass to Jonathan Huberdeau, it looked like the net was wide open for Florida to grab the game-tying goal, but McDonagh was there to just get enough of his stick on the puck and deflect it over the net.
"He was a beast out there, especially on the PK," Cernak said about McDonagh. "He was blocking shots and doing everything possible that he could, so I'm glad for the win."
A few moments later, Victor Hedman made a pass up ice to Kucherov, who danced into the Panthers' zone before sending a perfect feed right into the wheelhouse of Stamkos, who blasted home his patented one-timer to make it 3-1.
From there, Kucherov and Stamkos would each add an empty-net goal to seal a huge 5-1 win for the Lightning.
The Bolts couldn't ask for a better situation to be in. With a stranglehold on the series, they'll have a chance to close out the series as early as tomorrow night.
Here's three things we learned from another big win over the Panthers.
Video: Jon Cooper| Postgame R2G3
1. STICKING TO THE PLAN The Lightning have the recipe.
Tampa Bay has a game plan and a strategy for how they want to play. No matter what happens, they stick to that plan. They believe in it and they don't plan to stray away from it, even if things feel a little uneasy.
In fact, that was one of the first things Lightning forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare noticed about his new team when this year's playoffs began.
"One of the things that I've realized is that our game plan doesn't change," Bellemare explained. "The team trusts the game plan and trusts the system. Regardless of how the game goes, we're going to stick with it.
"That's what I've learned with this group. It doesn't matter the situation that we're in, nobody's going to start to cheat the game just for the sake of trying something brand new. Everybody in the locker room understands that the system works."
We know the old expression, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The Lightning's system is working. It's worked for the past two years. That system is now on the verge of sending them to the Eastern Conference Final.
"We have a plan and the guys are executing and playing hard," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Pretty committed group and I think you've seen it through the series, but we feel like we've got a recipe going here and we've just got to stick with it.
"It's hard though because they're a hell of a team. We have broken down at times and Vasy's been there to bail us out."
It certainly helps your cause when you have arguably the best goaltender in the world manning the crease for your team, but Cooper has always said it, process over outcome. It's about the process and doing things the right way. Right now, the outcome looks pretty good for the Bolts as well.
"We have a game plan," said Stamkos. "Let's stick to it.
"It's been successful, so why would we change that now? Let's go out and execute. We've done a great job so far of executing."
Video: Nick Paul and Steven Stamkos | Postgame R2G3
2. INTERNAL INSPIRATION We've talked about it all. The want to win three straight Stanley Cups.
The desire to win for the guys who have never won one.
The chance to make history.
The opportunity to capture that rare feeling once again.
There are a lot of things the Lightning can draw inspiration from in their pursuit of a third-straight Cup, but when they're on the ice, sometimes it's as simple as fighting for the guy next to you and going to war with your teammates.
"As a guy that doesn't get out on the PK and watches those guys, it really is inspiring," Stamkos said. "You watch those guys. They're battling. They're blocking shots, doing whatever it takes. Those aren't easy minutes in a game.
"You see guys coming back to the bench just gassed, grasping for air, and then they've got to go right back out there. Whatever guys are on the ice, we have full trust in that.
"It's just trust in each other that you're going to get the job done. When you have trust in your teammates, that creates a lot of confidence and it just progresses and it snowballs and you usually get good results."
This Tampa Bay team has sacrificed so much this postseason and we're only through 10 games. Every single player lays down to block shots. Everyone skates hard into the corners. Everyone is battling and fighting for every inch.
That's a special thing for a team to have. Everyone has bought in. Everyone is willing to go to war for each other and for the greater good of the team. You can't sense even a smidge of selfishness from this team.
They just want to win and they want to win together.
"Guys are sacrificing their body," said Stamkos. "They're putting it on the line every time they get out there and obviously some huge kills in the game.
"It was a 2-1 game at the end there. Those guys are out there blocking shots.
"At this time of the year, it's about winning and you need to do what's going to produce the wins. It's not always pretty and it's not always going to be the highlight plays."
Even the newcomers have shown a selflessness to their game, despite not having been with the group for all that long. Brandon Hagel had a massive shot block in Game 2 in Florida. Nick Paul has taken on some of the biggest duties on the penalty kill for the Bolts.
"I'm not really trying to get as much ice [time] as I can," said Paul. "I'm just trying to do my part to help the team win.
"If that's left wing, center, PK, blocking shots, getting deep - whatever my role needs to be, that's what I'm doing."
Video: FLA@TBL, Gm3: Kucherov scores empty-netter in Game 4
3. MOVING UP WITH KUCH A flat-out star in the NHL, Kucherov just continues to move up on the all-time leaderboards in a multitude of categories.
It was a casual four-point night for Tampa Bay's star winger, scoring a goal and adding three assists along the way, marking the fourth four-point playoff game of his career. That's the most among all active NHL players.
After his performance on Sunday, Kucherov has now recorded 94 career playoff assists and passed the legendary Gordie Howe to move into fifth place all-time in the NHL for playoff assists among wingers. Any time you're in the same sentence as Howe, let alone passing him, you're probably doing a few things right.
There are some other all-time greats that Kucherov is keeping company with as well.
Sunday marked Kucherov's 19th career playoff game with three-plus points. Only five players in NHL history have more: Wayne Gretzky (59), Mark Messier (30), Jari Kurri (28), Denis Savard (21), and Jaromir Jagr (20).
Only five players in the history of the NHL have more three-point games than Kucherov and something tells me that number may be down to three very soon.
It's not just multi-point performances either. You can't forget about the overall scoring numbers.
Kucherov is now up to 142 career playoff points in just 123 games. On Sunday, Kucherov jumped Jacques Lemaire (139 pts.) and Alex Ovechkin (141 pts.) to move into 37th place among the NHL's all-time playoff scoring leaders.
He also made progress on the all-time leaderboard for Russian-born players. Now that Kucherov has passed Ovechkin in playoff points, only Sergei Federov (176 pts.) and Evgeni Malkin (180 pts.) have more career playoff points.
As Jon Cooper said after Game 2, "He's a special, special player."
We can all relate to how Perry feels when he watches Kucherov make the plays that he does.
"I've said it all season long," Perry said after Game 2. "I shake my head and laugh.
"Those are plays that not too many guys can see or do or make. Guys want to do it, but they can't make that play. He can. He just continues to amaze me."
When Kucherov assisted on Stamkos's first goal of the night, it just looked like he had the puck on a string attached to his stick. After Hedman's pass bounced off the boards, Kucherov knew the exact trajectory of the puck and took it perfectly in stride on his backhand.
Then he just casually and smoothly entered the Florida zone and made a nice move to create space with Gustav Forsling defending him before sending a perfect pass over to Stamkos.
Kucherov isn't done stamping his name all over the NHL's record books. Luckily for us, we've still got multiple years in front of us to enjoy Kuch being Kuch.
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