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How Lightning recaptured playoff-winning form in New York/New Jersey

NEWARK, N.J. — Inside the Lightning locker room, the postseason already has begun.

Though 22 games remain on their regular-season schedule, they have to outlast several teams chasing them to make the playoffs. This Lightning team is a different group from the one that won consecutive Stanley Cups in 2020 and ‘21, but the core remembers what it takes to win in the postseason.

If the Lightning do make the postseason and have another deep run, back-to-back road wins over the Islanders and Devils this weekend, capped by Sunday’s 4-1 victory over New Jersey at Prudential Center, might be what they look back on as when their season became playoff-ready.

“It was huge,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who had a goal and an assist against the Devils and was one of three Lightning players who were plus-4. “We really played desperate, and we played to our structure. We didn’t cheat the game, and we played to our strengths.”

Things can change quickly at this time of the season, and the Lightning (32-23-5, 69 points) are now trending in the right direction.

After dropping three straight at home, Tampa Bay allowed three total goals in the two road wins. It took early leads and held them, earning four huge points against teams that are chasing them in the Eastern Conference standings and have games in hand.

“A lot of things have worked,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I think first and foremost, it’s our mindset and what it takes to win in the league and what it takes to win down the stretch. When you give up two goals a game or one goal a game, good things are going to happen.

“We’re just playing the right way. We’re not cheating for offense, we’re not beating ourselves, and that’s something we’ve done, especially on that homestand. Guys have made a conscious effort to make sure that’s not happening, and you can see the results.”

Here’s how the Lightning recaptured playoff-winning hockey Sunday in New Jersey.

The stars led the way

To win in the postseason, a team’s best players have to be great, and the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov has been one of the league’s top playoff performers over the past four seasons.

This year he has been all-world all season, and with a four-point day Sunday (one goal, three assists), he has a league-leading 102 points. Kucherov became the second active player since 1992-93 to reach 100 points in 60 games or fewer, joining Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, who did it last season.

After being held without a shot on goal in a scoreless first period, the Lightning’s top line of Brandon Hagel, Brayden Point and Kucherov took over the game in the second, putting Tampa Bay ahead 2-1. The trio posted 10 of the Lightning’s 17 even-strength shots on goal over the final 40 minutes, and Hagel cleaned up a loose puck in front of the net 9:38 into the third to give Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead and the breathing room it needed.

Kucherov assisted on each of the Lightning’s first three goals, by Hedman, Point and Hagel, then scored into an empty net with 1:35 remaining to seal the win. He has factored into each of the Lightning’s last seven goals dating to Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Islanders.

“He keeps doing it, day in and day out,” said Hagel, who had a goal and two assists. “He’s a special player. It’s fun to watch. I have a front-row seat for myself. He’s a competitor; he wants to win. He wants to get into the playoffs. He wants to win another Stanley Cup, and the way he plays, his work ethic, the forecheck, shows you why he’s doing what he’s doing.”

Holding the line

In the playoffs, a team needs to know how to close out games, and the Lightning did an impressive job of protecting the middle of the ice and preventing dangerous scoring chances. They contested shots, blocking 25 (Hedman had six, defenseman Calvin de Haan five), and held the blue line down the stretch to prevent the Devils from entering their zone. New Jersey had just three shots on goal in the third period.

“We sacrificed our body a lot and got into shooting lanes and had some good blocks when we needed to,” Hedman said. “That’s what good teams do. You find ways to win.”

It made for an easier day for goaltender Jonas Johansson, who stopped the Devils’ last eight shots after Tyler Toffoli’s power-play goal 6:01 into the second period. Johansson, starting for just the sixth time in almost three months, stopped 18 of the 19 shots he faced, improving to 3-3-0 since his playing time became more sporadic following Andrei Vasilevskiy’s return from back surgery in mid-November.

Winning at even strength

The Lightning have the best power play in the league, and at times they can rely too much on the man advantage for offense.

But in recent weeks, the power play has gone dry. The Lightning are 2-for-15 over their last six games, a 13.3% clip that is a far cry from their NHL-best 29.8% success rate they had going into Sunday.

It was a different story against the Devils. Aside from Kucherov’s empty-netter, all the Lightning’s goals came at even strength.

“In the end, if you make the playoffs, oftentimes there are lots of power plays in the first round, but ultimately as the playoffs go on, power plays dry up,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to round out your 5-on-5 game if you want to go anywhere in this league.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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