The matchup between Tampa Bay and Columbus was a case of two teams headed in opposite directions.
The Lightning entered Columbus’ Nationwide Arena riding a four-game win streak.
The Blue Jackets had dropped seven in a row.
Saturday night, recent form held true.
The Lightning blitzed the Blue Jackets from the start, striking for four goals in the first period and maintaining an advantage throughout, despite a late Columbus rally, in a 7-4 victory.
The Bolts (10-3-1, 21 points) have now won five-straight games. They’ll go for their sixth victory in a row Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.
Tampa Bay hasn’t won six straight since 2011 (Jan. 18-Feb. 1).
“We did what we had to do,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We came out, (Columbus) played last night and I thought we came out strong. You build up a 4-0 lead, I think that’s what you have to do to try and win the hockey game, and that’s what we did, we ended up winning the hockey game.”
J.T. Brown got in the scoring column for the first time this season with the game’s opening goal 5:46 into the first period. A shot from the blue line by Jason Garrison was blocked away by Columbus goaltender Anton Forsberg, making the second start of his NHL career. Brown, however, was waiting on the doorstep to jam the rebound home.
The goal was the first for Brown since scoring two at Florida on December 23, 2013.
Garrison and Andrej Sustr got assists. Garrison increased his points streak to five games.
“We were good in almost every asset of the game [in the first period],” Brown said. “Anytime you can jump on a team like that and get out to a 4-0 lead, obviously we’ll take that every single time.”
Cedric Paquette continued to make his case to stay with Tampa Bay permanently, scoring for the third time in two games since re-joining the Lightning on November 4. Jonathan Drouin stole a pass just outside the Columbus zone and had his shot from the left wing blocked by Forsberg (11 saves), but Paquette swooped in from the right and sent the rebound top shelf 21 seconds after Brown’s goal to put the Lightning up 2-0.
Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov were credited with assists.
Anton Stralman scored on the power play with help from Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan to make it 3-0 Lightning. The Swedish defender knocked the puck out of the air and past Forsberg at the doorstep after Stamkos ripped a slap shot from the left circle that was stopped but not saved.
“That’s where we had our success, when we got our D involved and we were at the net,” Cooper said. “We probably got away from that a little bit in the third, but we didn’t have the puck as much in the third.”
Brian Boyle registered his fifth goal of the season and second in two games to cap the first-period scoring for Tampa Bay. From behind the net, Brenden Morrow fed a puck into the slot, and a wide-open Boyle picked his spot past Forsberg with Morrow and Brown assisting.
“We worked hard to get our goals,” Boyle said. “It wasn’t easy getting our goals. It feels easy when they come in bunches like that.”
The Lightning nearly had a fifth goal in the first period as Nikita Kucherov was awarded a penalty shot after being spun around from behind by Tim Erixon on a breakaway. The puck slipped away from Kucherov on his final deke, though, before he could get a shot off on Forsberg.
Scott Hartnell gave Columbus (4-9-1, 9 points) its first spark, notching a power-play goal 4:11 into the second period, but the Lightning answered almost immediately to go back up by four.
Valtteri Filppula’s shot got caught in the skate of Callahan at the net, and the puck was knocked free and squirted over the goal line as Callahan was put on his back in front of Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney, who started the second in place of Forsberg.
Hartnell again cut into the Lightning lead with a power-play goal at 8:10 of the second period before Tyler Johnson answered with a wrist shot past McElhinney (20 stops) on the power play to push the lead again to four, Kucherov and Drouin assisting.
Fifteen of 18 skaters registered at least one point for the Lightning.
Ryan Johansen scored 1:01 into the final period, and Nick Foligno added another power-play goal at 5:10 of the third to keep the game interesting down the stretch, the Blue Jackets making short work of what had been an effective Tampa Bay penalty kill, scoring on three of five opportunities with the man advantage.
“They were coming to the net hard,” said Lightning goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who made his fourth start of the season. “They were putting everything to the net and going hard, probably the hardest I’ve seen in a while they’ve come to the net. They created havoc around the net. But, I’ve seen it happen 100 times. I don’t know why (that is), but it’s just the nature of team sports. Once you go up so much, the tendency for some reason, the other team gets hungry. They don’t want to get embarrassed, and you try to play different.”
Trailing by two with 2:30 to go, Columbus pulled McElhinney, but Johnson sealed the win for the Lightning with an empty-net goal, his second of the evening.
Callahan collected his second assist and third point to lead all Bolts skaters.
“Ultimately, in the end, we won the game 7-4,” Cooper said. “Was the third period a little lopsided for (Columbus)? Sure it was. They played hard. They’re a proud team. They’re going through a down time right now. They have a lot of injuries, and give them a lot of credit, they gutted it out to the end.”
Nabokov stopped 28 shots, including a couple key saves with the Bolts clinging to a two-goal lead, to win his second game of the season.
“I thought he played his best when the score was 6-4, and he settled down,” Cooper said. “He was a big reason the score stayed the way it did.”
The Lightning play the second half of a back-to-back Sunday at Detroit, a matchup that looks to be a good, early-season Atlantic Division test. Coverage starts at 5:30 p.m. with puck drop at 6.
The Bolts are 1-2-0 on the back end of consecutive games.