Martin St. Louis did again on Sunday night what has become routine for him throughout the entire season.
But against the division rival Panthers, what appeared to be just another common assist was marked by special significance.
St. Louis tied a career-high assist total with his 59th of the year, setting up a goal by Steven Stamkos, which ironically tied the second-year forward with St. Louis himself on the franchise’s all-time list of single-season goal scorers.
Stamkos cut the Panthers lead in half with a wrister from the right hash marks on the power play at 2:08 in the third period as Vincent Lecavalier, set up down low by the side of the net, received a pass from St. Louis and crossed it through the slot onto the stick of Stamkos who cashed in his 43rd of the season.
The effort, however, resulted in a 5-2 loss.
Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss each scored a goal and set up others for Florida, who put a halt to a three-game slide. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, lost its fifth straight and has dropped 12 out of the last 14. Keith Ballard also had two assists for the Panthers.
The Panthers, who sat behind the Lightning by one point in the standings with the 14th spot entering the game, jumped ahead of their Southeast Division rivals by earning their 69th point and now sit just five behind Boston for the East’s final playoff spot.
“It’s definitely nice to contribute in every game,” Stamkos said. “But we need to put together an impressive run to have any hope.”
Steve Downie also had a goal for Tampa Bay, who went up 1-0 after the Lightning winger picked off Bryan Allen’s pass at the blue line before skating in through the slot and firing a wrist shot top shelf past Florida net minder Scott Clemmensen.
Clemmensen got the start in favor of Tomas Vokoun, who was pulled from the Panthers’ 3-1 loss to Buffalo on Saturday night. He finished Sunday’s contests against Tampa Bay with 29 saves. Mike Smith got the call in net for the Lightning and stopped 35 shots.
“We had a pretty strong forecheck,” Downie said. “I just read it and I saw him [Allen] coming across there. I was thinking pass, but the defense left me all alone and took Stammer [Stamkos] away so I shot it and it went in.”
Florida came right back later in the period when a slap shot from Horton was knocked down out in front of the net by Lightning defenseman Matt Walker, causing the puck to dribble through the five hole of Mike Smith to even the score.
“We got the first goal, which was key. We wanted that coming in, but we had a couple of power plays and didn’t capitalize on the chances,” Downie added.
David Booth and Cory Stillman also scored for Florida just 46 seconds apart to cap a three-goal opening period.
Booth put the Panthers ahead with the team’s second power play goal at 17:42 before Stillman gave Florida a two-goal lead heading into the second period. The former Lightning forward’s goal came after Booth made it 2-1 with a tap-in off the back pads of Smith following a feed from Byron Bitz.
“Certainly it’s a challenge. They have a lot of speed and you can’t give them too much space at times,” defenseman David Hale said.
After Stamkos brought the contest to within one, Florida went back up by a pair at 4:03 in the final period when Stephen Weiss punched in a return pass from the low slot after giving up the puck to Allen at the left circle.
Radek Dvorak later iced the contest with his 12th of the season coming on a slap shot at 15:34.
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