Saturday’s game against the division-rival Florida Panthers was set to be memorable for Martin St. Louis before it even started.
Following 60 minutes, it indeed turned out as one to be remembered, but for two reasons.
Playing in his 900th career game, St. Louis scored three times to record his fifth career hat trick and help the Tampa Bay Lightning rebound from a previous loss by earning a 6-3 victory over the Southeast Division-leading Panthers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Steven Stamkos added his league-leading 34th goal of the season, and Nate Thompson also scored for Tampa Bay, which has won six of its past seven.
Vincent Lecavalier had a goal and chipped in three assists.
“Once I got going in the NHL, I knew I wanted to be here with Tampa Bay for a while,” St. Louis said. “And now I get to share these moments with my three boys.”
St. Louis got two of his goals on the night during Tampa Bay's four-goal second period in which it outshot Florida 17-7, helping the Lightning take a 5-3 lead entering the final 20 minutes. The right wing, who has six goals and 16 points during a league-best nine-game point streak, completed the hat trick on an empty-netter during the final minute of play.
“It’s only fitting,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said of St. Louis’ accomplishment. “It couldn’t have happened on a better night. I think he hadn’t had a hat trick in five years and then it happens tonight. Stamkos could have shot that, but it’s a tribute to the kind of people we have on this team; real unselfish people and people who care about the group. I was real impressed by that.”
Tomas Fleischmann, Mikael Samuelsson and Sean Bergenheim each scored for the Panthers, which got 27 saves from goaltender Scott Clemmensen.
Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen pulled Clemmensen towards the end of the second after he gave up five goals on 25 shots, opting instead for backup Brian Foster, who stopped the only shot he faced in his NHL debut. Clemmensen then returned for the start of the third period. Florida, coming off back-to-back wins, fell for the first time away from home since Jan. 20.
“I felt like I wanted to give Clemmensen a little breather there,” Dineen said. “My intention was to put him back in. There might have been one he would have liked to have back, but there were some breakdowns in front of him.”
Thompson put the game’s first goal on the board when he blocked a shot at the blue line and took the puck end to end before wristing a shot past Clemmensen from the left circle, giving the Lightning a 1-0 lead. Fleischmann then got the Panthers back even just 2:17 later after taking a behind-the-back pass from Kris Vertseeg and slipping one past Mathieu Garon from the right circle to make it 1-1.
Garon stopped 17 of 20 shots on the night for the Lightning.
Tampa Bay regained the one-goal advantage at 1:42 of the second when Lecavalier skated the puck in to the high slot and wristed one just beneath the crossbar for a 2-1 lead.
The Lightning captain now has at least 20 goals in 12 consecutive seasons.
St. Louis extended the Lightning lead to 3-1 when he picked up a loose puck just outside the crease and wrapped a shot around Clemmensen 2:40 after Lecavalier's goal.
St. Louis also scored with 4:52 left in the second off a nifty pass from the Lightning captain after Stamkos and Samuelsson exchanged goals in a span of 5:30 that made it 4-2.
Bergenheim cut the deficit to two with 46 seconds left in the middle frame, but St. Louis’ third of the night at 19:39 of the final period while on the power play extended the Bolts’ streak with at least a point in each to seven games.
Tampa Bay’s six goals on the night were a team season-high.
“It was huge,” Lecavalier said of bouncing back with a win. “We know that every game is important, no matter who you’re playing. You beat a team that’s first in your division, and it obviously makes a difference.
We came out and played a solid game.”