Lightning jump to early lead, hold off Canucks

Nikita Kucherov had two assists as the Tampa Bay Lightning were able to hold on to beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-2.

VANCOUVER — The Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t in much of a celebratory mood after collecting a 4-2 victory in Vancouver.

Despite winning for the fifth time in their last six games, thanks to a Yanni Gourde second-period goal that stood as the winner on Saturday, the Lightning didn’t feel good about letting the Canucks back into the game in the third.

Holding a 3-0 lead midway through the final period, Vancouver’s Thomas Vanek and Brock Boeser scored to make it a much closer game than the Eastern Conference-leading Lighting would have preferred.

“We didn’t play the right way,” said Gourde. “We can’t be doing that any more. You can’t let teams back in the game when you’re leading. We have to be much better than what we showed tonight.”

Chris Kunitz, Victor Hedman and Cory Conacher also scored for Tampa Bay (36-13-3). Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was impressive with 31 saves.

An equally-sombre Kunitz said his team needs to close out games if it hopes to make a deep run in the post-season.

“We have to make sure we’re learning how to win the right way,” said Kunitz. “We’re trying to focus on being a team that can win in the playoffs.”

Meanwhile, the Canucks (21-25-6) were looking for a third straight win at home for the first time this season. Their rally late in the third effectively ended when Conacher converted a penalty shot after taking a high stick to the face from Chris Tanev while on a breakaway.

“It’s tough for me, I have to come up with that save,” said Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom, who stopped 24 shots. “We’ve got to play full 60-minute games. We created chances, but they have one of the best goalies in the world over there and he outplayed me tonight. It’s frustrating.”

That goalie would be Vezina-candidate Vasilevskiy, who leads the league in shutouts (seven) and has faced 30 or more shot in his last six starts. He faced 17 shots in the third period alone on Saturday.

“He’s been our best player the whole year,” said Hedman. “He’s been phenomenal and keeping us in games we don’t deserve. He’s a game changer, that’s for sure, and he’s been playing like this all season. We owe it to him to play a full 60 minutes.”

Tampa had 1-0 lead before the game was two minutes in as Kunitz deftly tipped in the puck on the Lightning’s first shot. It was 2-0 minutes later when a Sven Baertschi turnover along the boards in the Canucks’ zone lead to Steven Stamkos finding Hedman, who blasted it through Markstrom’s legs.

Tampa made it 3-0 with four minutes left in the second when Gourde one-timed a cross-ice pass from Mikhail Sergachev that went top-shelf on Markstrom.

Vasilevskiy made several quality saves, including two on Boeser, to open the third with the Canucks on a two-man advantage for 1:50. He also shut the door on Troy Stecher and Henrik Sedin, who both took dangerous-looking shots from inside the slot.

The Canucks finally got to Vasilevskiy exactly midway through the third with a Vanek wraparound off a pass from Stecher.

With just over five minutes left to play Vancouver made it 3-2. Brandon Sutter passed the puck to Boeser, who skated over the blue line and ripped a shot through Vasilevskiy’s legs as the crowd erupted.

Tampa went on a power play after Conacher’s penalty shot and controlled play for the remainder of the game.

“We battled hard and that’s what you want to see. We were close,” said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin.

Notes: The Canucks were without Sam Gagner (upper-body) after the centre suffered an injury in Vancouver’s previous game. … Lightning defenceman Dan Girardi (lower body) missed his second straight game. … Saturday marked Henrik Sedin’s 1,300 NHL game.

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