The bitter defeat struck a blow to the Florida's long-shot bid for the playoffs, with the club remaining five points behind the Senators with just nine games left on the regular season slate. Ottawa now holds a game in hand on the Panthers, in addition to the advantage in points.
The Cats fell behind at the 5:49 mark of the opening period when Brian Campbell decided to change with his team attacking in the Lightning zone. Jimmy Hayes sent the puck back to the point expecting Campbell to be there, but no one was home. The puck traveled all the way down the ice where opportunistic Bolts Brenden Morrow and J.T. Brown tracked it down. The duo took a couple of swipes at it with Morrow finally putting the biscuit past a helpless Roberto Luongo.
Tampa Bay added to its lead just under two minutes later. Ryan Callahan intercepted a poor Erik Gudbranson breakout pass and fed Tyler Johnson for the quick one-timer. The goal was Johnson's twenty-sixth of the season.
Florida withstood the early blows to take a 12-10 lead in shots after twenty minutes, but could not solve Lightning starter Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made nice stops on the trio of Jonathan Huberdeau, Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov.
The breakthrough finally came at 6:16 of the second period. After Brad Boyes picked up a deflected Gudbranson shot, he dished it off to Jussi Jokinen, who quickly whipped it past Vasilevskiy to halve the deficit.
After taking a drop pass from Vincent Trocheck, who was subbing in for the injured Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri evened the game eighteen seconds later. Pirri's shot from the point eluded Tampa Bay's 20-year-old netminder, giving the red-hot forward goals in five of the last six games.
The Panthers seized the lead at the 8:14 mark, giving them three goals in a 1:58 span. Huberdeau did the honors, putting his own rebound into the net after Vasilevskiy made a sliding stop on his initial bid. Barkov and Jagr drew the assists on Huberdeau's twelfth goal of the campaign.
Nikita Kucherov pulled the Bolts even early in the third period. Kucherov notched his twenty-seventh with a wraparound goal, beating a harried Luongo after collecting the rebound of Andrej Sustr's shot behind the net. Ondrej Palat picked up the secondary assist on the play, which went to review before being upheld.
It looked like the game was heading to overtime, and the Panthers would escape with at least a point, until Callahan struck the decisive blow with 2:28 remaining. After taking a pass from Alex Killorn and losing Gudbranson behind the net, Callahan came out in front and calmly fired the puck past Luongo for the game-winner.
The Panthers pressed in a desperate attempt to come up with an equalizer, but Vasilevskiy was able to come up big on Huberdeau and the Lightning extended their winning streak to four games. Tampa Bay is now 18-3-3 against Atlantic Division foes and trails Montreal by just one point for the division lead.
Odds & Sods
- The win was Tampa Bay's 46th of the season, matching the franchise-record the club set last year. The Lightning's 30-7-1 record on home ice is the best in the league.
- In addition to putting the Panthers ahead in the second period, Jonathan Huberdeau finished with a game-high eight shots on goal and took over the team scoring lead with 44 points.
- The Cats did a nice job on Steven Stamkos, limiting the superstar to just two shots on goal. Stamkos, however, did pick up the secondary assist on Ryan Callahan's game-winning goal.
- Roberto Luongo ended the evening with 21 stops while his counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, turned aside 33 of the 36 shots he faced.
- Brandon Pirri now has 15 goals in his last 21 games. That torrid pace projects to 58 goals over a full 82-game season. Stay healthy, my friend.
- Nikita Kucherov and Valterri Filppula were the only two players to spend time in the penalty box. The Panthers power play failed on both chances.
- For more on the latest installment in the Battle of the Sunshine State, get yourself jolted over at Raw Charge.