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Lightning celebrate, then dominate

By Eduardo A. Encina
Tampa Bay Times/TNS
The Tampa Bay Lightning raise the banner celebrating winning the Stanley Cup for the 2019-20 NHL season during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on opening night of the 2020-21 NHL season  at Amalie Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. - The Lightning claimed the Stanley Cup under the most unusual of circumstances - isolated and far from home - but their first game back in their home arena, a night set for celebration as they unveiled their championship banner and started their title defense, was even more atypical.

With no fans in the stands, Amalie Arena was full of only empty blue seats. Lightning players saw their championship banner for the first time as it was lifted just 150 feet above the ice in the northwest corner of the arena and won’t be raised into the rafters until fans return to the building.

The banner, which had spotlights washing over it during breaks in play, was low enough to be within eyesight on every faceoff in the north offensive zone, almost as if it’s a constant reminder of this team’s goal, the rarely achieved feat of winning back-to-back Cups.

Once the puck dropped, the Lightning - wearing jerseys with mini-banners on their right shoulders for one night only - appeared driven toward that end, dismantling the Chicago Blackhawks to the tune of a resounding 5-1 win in the season opener.

In a 56-game season, it’s important to get off to a strong start, and the Lightning did that in Game 1, running out to a 3-0 lead after one period and never looking back.

If there was any question whether the Lightning would struggle on the power play out of the gate without the playmaking presence of Nikita Kucherov, they answered those questions early, scoring on two of their first three man-advantage situations of the season.

The team’s top power-play unit will move around a lot, and on Wednesday night they made the Blackhawks’ penalty killers’ heads spin, particularly on Steven Stamkos’s second-period score, in which Brayden Point lulled Chicago players to the right side before pinpointing a pass across the ice to Stamkos for a one-timer from the left circle to beat Blackhawks goalie Malcolm Subban top shelf.

Stamkos, back from core muscle surgery that kept him out since February with the exception of his marvelous 2:47 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, has now scored 11 power-play goals since the beginning of last season.

The Lightning also scored on their first man advantage opportunity of the night. Ondrej Palat opened the scoring, putting back a rebound of Victor Hedman’s shot from the point.

Though goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had a mostly quiet night, he made a phenomenal save late in the second period when play began to lag, stretching across the goal line to make a pad save to take away an open net from Andrew Shaw on a puck that was bouncing around the crease.

Mathieu Joseph, filling in for Tyler Johnson on the second line, scored a goal cleaning up a deflection off a Hedman shot from the point at the 16:18 mark of the first. Anthony Cirelli deflected an Erik Cernak shot past Subban at 17:57 of the opening period.

Point closed out the Blackhawks with his goal at the 6:45 mark of the third.