This time, the Tampa Bay Lightning refused to play it safe.
Rather than ride a one-goal lead in the third period and hope it would stand, the Lightning made sure they left the RBC Center with nothing less than two points on Saturday night.
Simon Gagne scored his second goal of the night into an empty net with 49 seconds to go in regulation to give Tampa Bay a 4-2 win over the division-rival Carolina Hurricanes. Saturday’s contest between the two Southeast clubs wrapped up the back half of a home-and-home series, which was split at a game apiece after Carolina took the first of the two meetings the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night.
Mike Smith made 33 saves for the Lightning, who kept pace in the playoff hunt by earning their 91st point of the season, four ahead of Montreal in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Sometimes I had to be acrobatic and sometimes I was lucky to have some easy saves,” Smith said. “I think our guys did a good job of shutting them down tonight.”
Despite being heavily outshot just the night before, the Lightning again found themselves down in shots through two periods, but still made them count even with no regard to the slight disadvantage.
Moore’s goal on a rebound at the top of the crease broke a 2-2 tie with the man advantage to put the Lightning up one towards the end of the second period. Lecavalier fired a shot from the point that deflected out in front off the pad of goaltender Cam Ward, but Moore, positioned in front of the net, was able to put it home to make it 3-2 and give Tampa Bay some much-needed momentum heading into the final 20 minutes.
“Vinny made a good play and was able to protect the puck long enough to get the shot,” Moore said. “I was able to screen the goaltender and got a lucky bounce.”
Much like in Friday’s 4-3 win on the road, Eric Staal and Erik Cole scored for Carolina, who had won four of the previous five games prior to Saturday night’s loss. Ward also made 28 saves for the Hurricanes, who fell five points back of eighth-place Buffalo, after the Sabres pulled out a 2-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils.
Staal opened the scoring with the man advantage at 7:07 after beating Smith to the near post with a shot from the right circle. That Carolina struck first had little effect on Tampa Bay, however, as the Lightning went on to take a 2-1 lead at 17:36 of the first period.
Whereas Friday’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes at the St. Pete Times Forum was largely the result of blown coverage in the defensive zone, it was Carolina who was ailed by an equal number of defensive problems, as a pair of Hurricanes turnovers resulted in Tampa Bay taking full advantage with 2:24 left in the opening frame.
First, St. Louis drew Tampa Bay even after finishing off an odd-man rush with the help of Lecavalier. The Lightning captain got the play started when he intercepted the puck along the boards and raced in one-on-one against Ward before drifting a pass in the slot to St. Louis, who chipped it over the left pad of the Hurricanes net minder to knot the score at one.
“Vinny knew I was coming and he made a great play,” St. Louis said. “That just comes with the experience of playing together.”
Gagne’s first of two on the evening put the Lightning up by one, but the lead did not last long. Cole made it 2-2 after taking a feed from Stillman, who found his teammate cutting in near the hash marks before flipping a backhand high over the shoulder of Smith with just 51 seconds remaining in the period.
“I’m happy with how we responded,” St. Louis added. “We went up by one and we don’t like to give up late goals like that going into the end of the period, but we just had to keep plugging away.”
The Lightning did just that.
Tampa Bay continued to generate shots on goal and a number of prime scoring chances even after the early first-period outburst. Steven Stamkos nearly increased the lead with a shot that hit off the crossbar in the second period, and St. Louis fanned on a put-back attempt midway through the third as the puck glided in through the goal mouth before finding its way behind the net.
Smith was busy throughout the night and rose to the occasion, as he more than made up for the lost chances by stopping several opportunities by the Hurricanes. Carolina outshot the Lightning in the first period and then proceeded to create even shots for the remaining two, including 13 for each team in the third period alone.
Still, the win proved as much as a boost of confidence for him as he believed it was for his team after the game.
“It feels very good for me, and it’s great for the team also,” Smith said. “We’ve been struggling to find wins, but tonight we played the game the right way and the way it needs to be played coming down the stretch into the playoffs.”
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