TAMPA - The Tampa Bay Lightning finally overcame a number of mental blocks Thursday night in a 5-4 win against the Florida Panthers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Steven Stamkos, who admitted earlier that his mental game needed some reassurance, received that with not only his first point since his return from injury, an assist on Tyler Johnson's second period tally, but his first goal, which ended as the game-winner.
"That was classic Stamkos right there," head coach Jon Cooper said. "He didn't go and jump in the crowd after the goal, he went over to [Valtteri] Filppula right away and acknowledged the pass and that's why he's our captain."
A two-goal lead heading into the third period also provided another test, to see if Tampa Bay could hold on for a win and collect two points for the first time in nearly two weeks, which it also proved up to the challenge.
Netminder Ben Bishop did allow two goals in the final 1:03 of play, but the Bolts weathered Florida's storm to snap a five-game losing skid.
"For 59 minutes I think we stuck to the game plan," Stamkos said. "We could have easily put our tail between our legs after they scored those two quick goals, but that's one thing we talked about – no matter what happens in the game, let's stay on it. We did and I thought we deserved the win today."
"You don't read too much into those goals," Ryan Callahan said. "I think when you're struggling a little bit to get those wins, the two points is what matters and you need to take it and move on."
The first period proved to be a rough one for both netminders, as Bishop and Dan Ellis allowed a combined four goals on just 13 shots.
The Panthers notched the first goal of the game on the league's worst road power play 30 seconds after Radko Gudas went to the box for interference. Just under four minutes, later Sami Salo tied the game at one. Upon Filppula winning a face-off in the left circle of Florida's zone, Salo grabbed the puck and ripped a shot past Ellis at 5:38.
However, 12 seconds later Quinton Howden responded with his first career goal to re-gain the lead. Tampa Bay was not done yet after a second Lightning blueliner, Mike Kostka, evened the score at two. Teddy Purcell sent Kostka the pass from the left side as Kostka scored on a slapshot.
"After the first period Bishop said he's got it from here on out," Stamkos said. "I know he wanted that second one back, so that shows the character and his competitiveness that he steps up to the plate and tells us he's going to make the rest of the saves for the rest of the game besides the end of the game."
Bishop seemed to settle down after the first 20 minutes of play, allowing no goals, while the Bolts added two more.
The first of the pair of markers came from Callahan on some beautiful tic-tac-toe passing from his linemates, Filppula and Ondrej Palat. It was Callahan's first goal as a member of the Lightning, as he now has three points in four games since joining the team.
"He lives in front of the net," Cooper said on Callahan. "I thought he and the rest of the line played outstanding tonight."
Then Tyler Johnson made it a two-goal lead for Tampa Bay off of a feed from Stamkos with 1:07 remaining in the middle frame. Though Johnson seemed to want to deflect the puck in off of Alex Killorn, who was stationed in front of the net, his shot instead hit the Panthers Ed Jovanovski and went into Ellis' cage for a 4-2 advantage.
Palat and Johnson both extended their point streaks to three and five games, respectively.
On the Bolts' third power play of the night, Stamkos scored his first goal since his return from injury at 9:13 to give the Lightning a 5-2 lead. Filppula sent the pass to Stamkos and earned his third assist of the game on the marker.
"It's nice, just confidence-wise to get you going," Stamkos said. "To see one go in, it's reassuring to see the hardwork you put in paid off."
Florida nearly evened the game at five with back-to-back goals 38 seconds apart in the last 1:03 to play, but the Lightning held on to pick up points in their past three games.
"We made a couple big mistakes at the end," Cooper said. "It's time to learn from those, but at the same time that's two more points than we had two hours ago."
It was the Lightning's first-ever season series sweep against the Panthers.
UP NEXT – Tampa Bay will take a day off Friday before their fifth game of a six-game homestand Saturday evening versus the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have won both prior meetings against the Lightning, outscoring them by a combined score of 5-1. Monday concludes the Bolts homestand versus the Vancouver Canucks at 7:30 p.m.