TAMPA, Fla. — Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov scored power-play goals in the first period, and the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Nashville Predators 6-2 on Saturday night.
Hedman became only the second defenseman in franchise history to score 20 goals in a season, joining Dan Boyle, who did so in 2006-07.
“I just aimed for the stars and hit them as hard as I could,” Hedman said of his blast from the high slot.
Kucherov finished with a goal and two assists, Steve Stamkos had a goal and two assists, and Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton also scored for the Lightning. Brian Elliott made 19 saves.
“A balanced score – that’s key and if you want to go anywhere in the playoffs, you need more than a few guys scoring,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I look at guys who have 20 or more (goals) or close to 20, and that’s a big reason for our success.”
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions have tightened their defense in their last two games, both winners. Together, the Lightning outscored the Toronto Maple Leafs and Predators 14-3 and didn’t allow a goal at even strength.
Cooper said he’s happy to see his team playing better defense heading into the playoffs.
“If we want to do anything, we have to see to our own end,” he said. “I love our tandem (of goaltenders), but I don’t care who’s in goal. If you don’t defend, there’s not much they can do.
Tampa Bay is three points ahead of the Boston Bruins in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins defeated the New York Rangers 3-1 earlier Saturday.
Nashville is tied with Dallas for the two wildcard spots in the Western Conference due to the Predators’ loss and the Stars’ 3-2 win over the Seattle Kraken on Saturday. Both teams have 93 points, although the Predators have a game in hand. The Vegas Golden Knights are four points behind Nashville and Dallas.
Nashville defensemen Roman Josi and Alexander Carrier scored power-play goals. Josi became the first NHL defenseman to reach 90 points since Boston’s Ray Bourque (91 in 1993-94).
“That’s definitely not on my mind tonight,” Josi said of the milestone. “We are in a hunt for the playoffs and it was a disappointing night for us. Sometimes I will look back on that and be happy, but tonight I was disappointed with how it ended and the way we played.
Saros allowed six goals on 30 shots before being replaced by David Rittich after Colton and Pat Maroon scored 31 seconds apart early in the third period. Rittich made eight saves.
The first period was full of goals. Hedman beat Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros just 1:51 from the start of the game, and Cirelli beat Saros on a breakaway at 10:59 to make it 2-0.
Josi’s goal, his 21st of the season, came with around three minutes left and cut the deficit to 2-1. But Kucherov made it 3-1 when he beat Saros with a wrist shot with 20 seconds left for his 21st goal. Kucherov has a five game streak with at least one point and one goal streak.
Carrier’s third of the season at 10:42 of the second period made it 3-2, but Stamkos powered a Kucherov pass past Saros six minutes from time for a 4-2 lead.
Nashville coach John Hynes said Stamkos’ goal, his 35th of the season, really hurt.
“It was a really nice piece,” he said. “It was a turnaround, and when you give these guys, with that level of skill, a chance against an unorganized defense, they made a play and that was an important goal.”
Colton deflected Hedman’s shot into the net at 1:37 of the third period, and Maroon celebrated his 34th birthday by scoring at 2:08.
The Predators and Lightning, who wore custom jerseys when they met Feb. 26 in the NHL Stadium Series at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, wore those same uniforms on Saturday.
The Lightning are 9-2-0 in their last 11 games against Nashville.
The Lightning paid tribute to longtime Predators broadcaster Terry Crisp, who was Tampa Bay’s coach when the franchise entered the NHL in 1992 and is retiring after this season.
Crisp coached the first 391 games in Lightning history until he was fired at the start of the 1997-98 season. He’s covered the Predators as a TV analyst and show host since they joined the NHL in 1998.
Predators: Go home to host Minnesota on Sunday.
Lightning: Visit the state rivals Florida Panthers on Sunday.