COLUMBUS, Ohio — You could tell something flipped with the Lightning in Sunday’s second period, a dazzling and dominating display against the Blue Jackets that followed a first-period funk.
Turns out, the spark came at the intermission.
"I flipped," coach Jon Cooper said, smiling.
Well, Cooper didn’t go crazy, or throw anything. He just reminded the league’s best team that it wouldn’t win playing like it did in the first 20 minutes, when it had five shots.
"It was just a reality check for our guys," Cooper said.
And like Tampa Bay has often done this season, it responded. The Lightning scored four goals in a second-period flurry to spark a 5-0 win to end 2017 with a bang. Tampa Bay outshot Columbus 20-6 in the second, including 15-1 in the first 10 minutes, making a really good Blue Jackets team look really bad.
The Lightning has done that to a lot of teams this season. It has a league-leading 58 points and a 10-point cushion over the second-place teams in the Atlantic Division.
"We have a very talented group, there’s no doubt about it," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We’ve got a lot of players that can make plays, and we have the best (goalie) in the league.
"I think when we’re on, we’re a really good hockey team. It’s hard to beat us."
This was an encouraging start to a stretch of 13 of the next 16 games on the road. It was a group effort. Tyler Johnson continued his incredible December with two goals for a total of eight in the month, and 18 points. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov each had one goal, as did third-liner Cory Conacher.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy picked up his league-leading 25th win and league-best fifth shutout.
"I truly believe he’s the best goalie in the world right now," Johnson said.
Before the Lightning’s second-period onslaught, Vasilevskiy was huge in the opening period, making 12 saves to keep the game scoreless. If Vasilevskiy doesn’t stop Columbus captain Nick Foligno on a first-period breakaway, things may have turned out a bit differently.
"When (Vasilevskiy) does that for you, the guys stand a little taller," Cooper said.
Conacher tallied his third goal of the season on a slick snipe. When all four lines are rolling like that, the Lightning (28-8-2) is tough to stop.
"We have a lot of confidence," Kucherov said. "A lot of mojo."
The much-maligned penalty kill delivered a strong bounce-back performance from Friday’s loss to the Flyers, killing off the Blue Jackets’ four power plays. Tampa Bay had allowed 11 power-play goals in the previous seven games. The unit could get key cog Ryan Callahan (upper-body injury) back this week.
This trip gets only tougher for the Lightning, with games looming against divisional rivals Toronto on Tuesday and Montreal on Thursday. And Tampa Bay still has a lot of work to do with more than half the season left. Stamkos has pointed out it still has flaws.
But watching games like Sunday’s, it’s easy to envision the Lightning playing very meaningful games in 2018.
"What I’ve really liked about our team is our response," Cooper said. "Even right at the beginning of the year, we were trying to find our way early, but every time we were pushed against the wall, the guys responded. We haven’t gone through any prolonged losing streaks. If we did get a loss, we nipped it right away.
"That shows the leadership and character in the room. When things start to go off track a little bit, they can find a way to get it back on."
Just like Sunday.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
at Maple Leafs, 7 Tuesday, Toronto
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 970-AM
First Period—None. Penalties—Foligno, CBJ, (hooking), 3:19; Dotchin, TB, (cross checking), 7:16; Paquette, TB, (tripping), 12:42.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, T.Johnson 11 (Sergachev, Point), 1:22. 2, Tampa Bay, T.Johnson 12 (Sergachev, Point), 4:49. 3, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 25 (Namestnikov), 7:53. 4, Tampa Bay, Conacher 3 (Gourde, Hedman), 8:45. Penalties—Schroeder, CBJ, (tripping), 2:44; Coburn, TB, (holding), 15:37; Milano, CBJ, (tripping), 17:00; Sergachev, TB, (interference), 20:00.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 17 (Kucherov, Hedman), 10:36 (pp). Penalties—Savard, CBJ, (slashing), 6:39; Columbus bench, served by Milano (too many men on the ice), 8:44. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 5-23-7—35. Columbus 12-6-3—21. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 5; Columbus 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 24-5-1 (21 shots-21 saves). Columbus, Korpisalo 4-3-0 (35-30).