If you disregard high-flying water bottles, bad blood and crunching collisions for a moment, you might notice that the next toughest thing to scoring on Andrei Vasilevskiy is correctly spelling the surname of Tampa Bay's gifted goalie.
Known to teammates -- especially those with spelling issues -- simply as the Big Cat, Vasilevskiy has rediscovered his Conn Smythe groove, especially after a two-day break between games against the top-seeded Florida Panthers. With a sparkling 34-save performance in Game 3 Sunday, Lightning fans are reaching for their Battle of Florida brooms today faster than you can say "natural hat trick Evander Kane."
Here are five things we need to know heading into today's action in the NHL playoffs:
SWEEP DREAMS IN TAMPA BAY
With a win today at home, the two-time defending champion Lightning will qualify for their sixth Eastern Conference Final in the past eight years, a stat which never plays well at the summer cottage parity party.
The Florida Panthers, in danger of going from Presidents' Trophy winners to spectators with a loss in Tampa Bay, only scored once Sunday in a 5-1 defeat, but if you look at the bottle being half full it was a power play marker that snapped the Panthers' 0-for-25 playoff misery with the man advantage.
Corey Perry, who scored a power-play goal for Tampa Bay -- his 50th career post-season marker to move into sixth place for active players with that many special teams goals -- said as long as Vasilevskiy keeps shining, the Lightning likely can't be stopped in their quest for a three-peat.
Many Florida fans were upset that the older Tampa Bay roster got a full two-day break between Games 2 and 3, but it was noted that country music star Kane Brown had long ago booked Amalie Arena for Saturday. When some fans asked "Who's that?" it was pointed out Brown has three No. 1 hits and several other songs trending that way, including one that might interest Panthers fans -- it's called "What Ifs."
NAZ TAKES RAZZ FOR CREASE CRASH
Nazem Kadri of the Colorado Avalanche knew right away he was going to be Public Enemy No. 1 when Blues' goaltender Justin Binnington didn't get up after Saturday's crease collision in St. Louis.
Binnington, sidelined for the remainder of the series with a lower body injury but still healthy enough to throw water bottles, got the worst of a collision with his defenceman Calle Rosen and Kadri.
"When I looked up from the ice and saw Justin lying there ... I knew what was coming," said Kane after the visiting Avs won 5-2 and took a 2-1 lead in the series. "I'm never trying to hurt anyone out there."
Colorado coach Jared Bednar, focused on tonight's Game 4 and still dealing with the loss of defenceman Samuel Girard, who broke his sternum in a Game 3 crash along the boards with the Blues' Ivan Barbashev, felt the Kadri hit was "a hockey play and unfortunate," and former NHL ref Don Koharski agreed with that opinion. But St. Louis coach Craig Berube wasn't buying the accident line.
"Look at Kadri's reputation. That's all I've got to say," said Berube, who called up Charlie Lindgren from the AHL Springfield Thunderbirds to back up Ville Husso.
RANGERS FUMING OVER 'CHEAP SHOT'
With a Sunday win at Madison Square Garden and his netminder Igor Shesterkin looking invincible, Rangers' coach Gerard Gallant still wasn't in the mood for celebrating the highlights of his squad's 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Instead, Gallant took issue with the 'Canes after Maxi Domi took a "cheap shot" at Ryan Lindgren in the dying seconds of Game 3.
“I wasn’t happy with the bulls--t at the end of the game that they initiated," Gallant said. "We didn’t do that when the games were close ... If they want to play like that, we’ve got the guys that can match them.”
With the Rangers trailing the series 2-1 and Game 4 on Tuesday at MSG, Gallant was asked if he was sending a message.
"We’re not sending any message. We’ve got the guy that can handle all their guys if we want to and we didn't do it like that. Domi took a cheap shot at our defenceman," said the coach.
FROM STRANGER TO SNIPER
Jay Woodcroft admits he didn't know much about Evander Kane when the Edmonton Oilers signed the controversial forward to a one-year deal in January. Coach, meet your team's leading goal scorer in the playoffs.
The 30-year-old Kane scored a natural hat trick Sunday during an impressive six-minute span in the second period of Game 3 in Edmonton. The goals increased his output to 10 this post-season, and helped the Oilers register a 4-1 victory and grab a 2-1 lead in the Battle of Alberta series. It was Kane's second hat trick of the post-season, the first coming in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings.
Kane, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have combined for 55 points through the Oilers' first 10 playoff games.
Woodcroft says he "really, really likes" Kane's habits as a player and believes he "fits well into the team's rhythm." Speaking of rhythm, credit Kane for setting the mood for some La Bamba at Rogers Place.
INTIMIDATED IN EDMONTON
Calgary coach Darryl Sutter pointed out in the first round of playoffs that his Flames didn't have as much playoff experience as the Dallas Stars, and then found a way to win in seven games.
He then said his team didn't have a Connor McDavid-like player in its lineup for the second round, but liked his defence, goaltending and team structure.
His tune changed Sunday after a 4-1 beatdown in Edmonton.
"I think we had a lot of our younger guys that haven't been in this situation before (and) were a little bit intimidated by the atmosphere," Sutter said.
The bench boss added: "[The Oilers] haven't played at home in this round yet and they were going to come out hard and really play with a lot of purpose in their game, a lot of speed, and they did.
"And I thought 'Marky' [goalie Jacob Markstrom] in the first period, probably made three or four saves that kept it at no score."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2022
Gord Kurenoff, The Canadian Press