TAMPA – While netminder Kristers Gudlevskis compared his 3-2 victory versus the Columbus Blue Jackets to "a dream," it was much of the same for the Tampa Bay Lightning who lost a handful of players in the winning effort Friday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"I never would have thought during a push for home ice that we'd play three different starting goalies in one week," head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's unreal, tonight's post-game speech I gave in the trainer's room."
Injury-riddled, the Lightning continue to win and Cooper could not help but remain positive over their third straight success.
"We couldn't do this without everybody involved," he said. "We took care of Columbus, now it's Washington."
Still unsure of netminder Ben Bishop's availability as the Lightning inch closer toward the playoffs, it was essential to get the 21-year-old Gudlevskis in net before next week. Thursday and Friday's back-to-back scenario presented the perfect opportunity to do so.
"We did not want his first game to be a playoff game," Cooper said. "We wanted him to feel the environment and get this out of the way and he was up to the task."
Gudlevskis has now started at four different levels (East Coast Hockey League, American Hockey League, National Hockey League, Olympics) this year. This first time in history it has happened.
"I was a little bit nervous," Gudlevskis said. "But I was really excited. I made the first save; got some confidence and then I just enjoyed the game.
"It was a relief when the horn went off in the third. I wanted to win this game and my biggest dream has come true. I'm probably going to wake up soon."
With Valtteri Filppula (lower body) and Teddy Purcell (flu) both missing action, it left room for another candidate to make his NHL debut, Cedric Paquette, who was recalled by Tampa Bay earlier in the day.
"I got the call last night," Paquette said. "I had to pick my stuff up and be ready to go at 6 a.m."
Paquette picked up his first career NHL point with an assist on the first of two goals by defenseman Eric Brewer.
"At the beginning of the game it was a bit fast," Paquette said. "I think I adjusted. I wasn't expecting to play that well, but I just tried to play my game."
The Lightning lost Victor Hedman early in the first to a lower body injury, as he only logged 1:42 of total ice time, which left the Bolts in a tough spot dressing just six defensemen in the first place.
Yet Gudlevskis and the Bolts weathered the storm even as the Blue Jackets took a commanding 14-8 shot advantage after 20 minutes of play.
Ondrej Palat's power-play goal at 3:55 of the second extented his point streak to six games, but Columbus answered back when Boone Jenner tipped-in Jack Johnson's shot 10 minutes later for a 1-1 score. Palat has four goals and four assists over that span.
The Bolts still pushed forward and Brewer offered a quick response with back-to-back goals at 14:54 and 18:06 of the middle frame to give them a two-goal cushion.
The injuries kept coming. Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson laid a hit on Palat that sent him to the locker room, before Nikita Kucherov was also shaken up on Johnson's trip from behind.
Depleted, the Lightning did not registerr its first shot on goal until nearly 10 minutes had passed in the final period and allowed Columbus to come within one with 3:23 left in the game.
Paquette was thrown into the fire and played important minutes thereafter, as Cooper pointed out that those minutes reflected his efforts.
"He played more in the third, than the first two combined. That will tell you how I felt," Cooper said.
From there, the story of the Bolts season continues to carry the same theme. The Lightning defense stood tall and Gudlevskis eventually went on to earn his first career win with a 36-save effort in an exciting, playoff-style contest, despite the adversity thrown the Bolts' way.
UP NEXT – Tampa Bay closes out the regular season in the District with a visit to the Verizon Center to play the Washington Capitals for the third and final time this campaign. With home ice still in the air, a win Sunday would guarantee home ice for the Bolts, regardless of the outcome of the Montreal Canadien's tilt Saturday.