NEW YORK - Tampa Bay's overhauled roster this season is sprinkled with plenty of players inexperienced in the NHL playoffs.
Well, to those "newbies," welcome to playoff hockey.
The Lightning defeated the New York Rangers 2-1 on a Sunday matinee in front of a sellout crowd of 18,200 at Madison Square Garden to give Tampa Bay consecutive victories by the same score. Tampa Bay's record in one-goal games this season improved to 21-3-7.
With a fourth victory in four meetings against New York this season, it marked the second time in franchise history the Lightning have swept a series from the Rangers, with the other time coming in 1996-97 when Tampa Bay won all five matchups.
Vinny Lecavalier scored the game-winner during a two-man advantage 2:40 into the third period while Dwayne Roloson stopped 22 shots to help Tampa Bay win its third consecutive game and regain the five-point lead atop the Southeast Division against Washington. Marty St. Louis added a goal and an assist as well but was banged up after blocking a shot on his left forearm in the third, although X-rays came back negative.
In each of the past two games - which included a tight-checking affair against New Jersey on Friday - it was about as close to a playoff-style game as the team is going to get. To play in those games, and to win them, is indoctrination to the 10 players who have zero games of playoff experience. Even for the 13 players currently on the roster who have played in fewer than 13 playoff games, grinding out victories at this time of the year is invaluable experience.
"It was a lot of work out there, a lot of bumps, a lot of grinds in the corner,'' said Eric Brewer, who has played in just 12 career postseason games, none since 2003. "We know we are going to have to grind some games out and we have in the past couple. Hopefully, we can continue that."
Sunday's game featured just 42 combined shots, with Tampa Bay coming in at under 20 shots for just the third time this season in what was another tight, low-scoring affair.
"We are able to finish these close games rather than winning by three or four, we win these close games and I think that's a sign of maturity,'' said defenseman Randy Jones, who has just 10 games of playoff experience under his belt.
On Sunday, in what Lightning coach Guy Boucher described as the "ugliest" game of the year while playing on less than ideal ice conditions, St. Louis gave Tampa Bay the early lead, grabbing a puck in his own zone to lead a rush up ice. After entering the Rangers zone, St. Louis dished to Steve Downie, who returned the favor to St. Louis to bang in a one-timer 5:04 into the game for his fourth goal in three games.
The Rangers tied it up shorthanded when Lecavalier lost the puck in the offensive zone that allowed Brandon Prust to skate into the zone after Marc-Andre Bergeron slipped to the ice. Prust's initial shot was stopped by Roloson but slid into the net after it appeared Roloson was pushed away by Prust as he continued moving forward. The goal was a league-high 11th shorthanded goal allowed by the Lightning.
Lecavalier atoned, however, when he hammered in a one-timer from the right circle during a five-on-three opportunity, delivering at a key moment in the game after Brian Boyle flipped a puck over the boards for a delay-of-game penalty with Dan Girardi already in the box for boarding.
"You have to, it's a must (to score on the five-on-three), you can't not score there and expect to win the game,'' St. Louis said. "We have veteran guys who have been out there, we know what is at stake, and we know that's the game right there."
It's been that ability to capitalize on chances while playing a tight style of game that helps groom success when it matters most.
"For us, to play the style of game we have played the past two games is great for us, it gives us confidence that we can play a defensive style and still capitalize on the chances we get," Roloson said. "Our last game, our guys played the game plan perfectly, and tonight we got away from it a little bit, but we were able to bring it back in the third period and win the third period."