COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The extra incentive to win was evident in the amped-up intensity, extra pushing and shoving, and scattered punches exchanged between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the end, a major gaffe by Columbus’ Zach Werenski led to the overtime goal that gave the Lightning a 2-1 win in the first meeting of the teams since the Blue Jackets swept Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs for their first-ever postseason series victory.
Werenski turned the puck over behind his own net and Victor Hedman fed it out to Kucherov, who beat Elvis Merzlikins 31 seconds into overtime for the 2-1 win on Monday night, the seventh straight for the hot Lightning.
“I (screwed) that one up,” a dejected Werenski said. “That’s about it pretty much.”
The game was close-checking and chippy, not unlike the playoff series between the two teams last spring. But Kucherov, who also scored in the first period, downplayed the revenge factor.
“We got two points and we’re happy with that,” he said. “What happened in the past stays there, and we’re trying not to think about it. But I guess those guys are trying to say something about last year on the ice, but who cares.”
Former Blue Jackets backup Curtis McElhinney, starting ahead of Andrei Vasilevskiy on the first night of a back-to-back, had 31 saves to extend the Lightning’s point streak to nine games (8-0-1).
Oliver Bjorkstrand scored for Columbus. Merzlikins — who finished with 28 saves — and the Blue Jackets lost their second straight after a 10-game point streak helped move them up the table in the Metropolitan Division. Coupled with the New York Islanders’ win at Washington, Columbus dropped from third place into the first wild card slot.
Tampa Bay, chasing first-place Boston in the Atlantic Division, is 19-2-1 in the last 22 games.
“There was a lot of anticipation coming into this game,” Lightning forward Alex Killhorn said. “It was a game we wanted to win. We’ve been playing well. I think they have as well.”
The Lightning were missing prolific scorer Steven Stamkos because of an injury, and the Blue Jackets were without star defenseman Seth Jones (ankle injury) and forward Cam Atkinson (lower-body injury).
Kucherov started it for the Lightning at 2:29 of the first when he redirected Mikhail Sergachev’s shot from the point.
The Blue Jackets tied it in the second. Shortly after Columbus missed on a 2-on-1 rush, Bjorkstrand got a breakaway, deked McElhinney and backhanded a shot over his right pad 3:44 into the middle period.
Columbus coach John Tortorella was not unhappy with the team’s play.
“I thought we showed them way too much respect in the first period,” he said. “We caught hold of ourselves, and then I thought we played a really good hockey game.
“The thing that frustrates me is, I want us to have a chance to win the overtime. And if they’re going to beat us, I want them to beat us, not us beat ourselves. That’s what’s frustrating to me. I want to see it play out. Let it play out, not have it end that way.”
NOTES: Columbus F Liam Foudy was recalled from London of the Ontario Hockey League on an emergency basis and made his NHL debut. ... Merzlikins was named the NHL No. 1 Star for the week ending Feb. 9. ... Lightning D Ryan McDonagh (lower body) missed his second game with injury and D Jan Rutta (lower body) missed his third. ... Stamkos could return Tuesday night against Pittsburgh. ... Sergachev’s assist was his 100th career point. ... Markus Nutivaara replaced Jones on the Blue Jackets’ first defensive pairing alongside Zach Weresnki.
Lightning: At Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Blue Jackets: At Buffalo on Thursday.
Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at twitter.com/mitchstacy