Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brett Connolly was slowed earlier this season by a knee injury that forced him to miss 12 games (Oct. 25-Nov. 18).
Connolly returned to the lineup November 20 in Toronto.
On Monday, Connolly regained his scoring touch.
The former first-round pick (sixth overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft tallied two goals – the first multi-goal game of his career – to lead the Lightning past the New York Rangers 6-3 at Madison Square Garden.
With the victory, the Lightning (17-6-2, 36 points) sweep all three regular season games from New York, winning two out of the three contests on the road. Overall, the Bolts outscored the Rangers 15-7.
“By no means are we a perfect team, but we play together and they play hard and it’s been paying off for them,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said.
Ben Bishop improved to 8-0-0 against the Rangers and 15-3-2 this season after making several critical stops and 32-of-35 total.
“You need your guy there to make the big saves in the big moments, and he did that again tonight,” Tampa Bay Cooper said.
Connolly scored the game-winner 5:34 into the third period after the two teams were tied 3-3 through two. On the power play, Connolly zipped a wrist shot from the right circle that found a perfect spot between New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (15 saves) and the far post to put the Bolts ahead for good.
“I thought (Connolly) was playing the best hockey he’s played in the NHL right before he got hurt,” Cooper said. “It was really unfortunate when he got hurt. Now, he’s slowly coming back. The one thing, whatever it is, Connolly’s got it when he’s shooting the puck. The kid can put the puck in the net.”
The Lightning beat the Rangers (11-9-4, 26 points) for the third time in 15 days.
Connolly scored at 16:02 of the first period as Tampa Bay retook the lead 2-1 after New York tied the score earlier in the period. In the Rangers’ zone, Connolly skated hard toward the middle of the ice then hit the brakes to shake free, setting up for a pinpoint slap shot past Lundqvist with Hedman and Bishop assisting.
“I had a couple rough shifts before that and I just tried to bear down and tried to shoot as hard as I could and (Morrow) had a good screen,” Connolly said. “As far as Lundqvist, I don’t think he saw a lot of it. I think it went through the D-man too.”
The Lightning entered the second period with a 2-1 advantage thanks to Connolly, but the Rangers dominated the middle frame, scoring twice to take their first lead.
Derick Brassard set up the tying goal beautifully, holding the puck in the slot and faking a shot to draw Bishop out of position then slipping a pass to Jesper Fast on the doorstep. Fast tapped in the gift to make it 2-2.
Before the game, the Rangers honored Martin St. Louis for recording the 1,000th point of his NHL career Friday. The Lightning watched the video tribute and applauded from the bench, Stamkos presenting his friend and former teammate with a sterling silver serving tray from Tiffany & Co.
Once action started, St. Louis reciprocated by scoring on the team he played with for 13 seasons.
St. Louis’ goal – career point No. 1,001 – came on a Rangers power play and gave New York a 3-2 lead. A shot from the slot by Ryan McDonagh was saved by Bishop, but St. Louis was waiting to knock the rebound into goal.
The Lightning were reeling after giving up two scores in the second to fall behind, and the Rangers continued to pressure Bishop’s goal. But, the Bolts benefitted from a pair of hooking calls on the Rangers’ Kevin Hayes and Ryan McDonagh in quick succession to stem the tide.
Tampa Bay had a 5-on-3 for 1:20 and 40 more seconds with a man-advantage but couldn’t capitalize on either. However, the Lightning kept attacking after both penalties expired, keeping the puck in the zone against a worn-out New York penalty kill, and Matt Carle finally smashed a one-timer over the shoulder of Lundqvist and under the crossbar to tie the game 3-3.
“We’re kind of humming there, and I can’t remember who kept it in, (Anton) Stralman I think keeps that puck in,” Cooper said. “We get the change in. I just didn’t know who was more gassed, our guys or their guys…We keep it in, we change and big-time goal because the crowd was into it. If they get out of that, now we’re still behind and who knows what happens? I thought that took a little bit of the air out of the tires when we got that one.”
After Connolly provided the game-winner, Tyler Johnson scored his second of the game to give the Lightning a two-goal advantage..
Ondrej Palat added an empty-net goal with 27 seconds remaining and New York on a power play to finish off the Rangers 6-3.
With 36 points through 25 games, the Lightning are off to their fastest start in franchise history.
Johnson scored earlier in the opening period, assisted by Palat and Hedman, for the game’s first goal at 6:32. The point was Hedman’s first since October 13 after the 6-foot-6 Swede missed six weeks of the season with a fractured finger.
The Rangers Kevin Hayes capitalized on a giveaway by Cedric Paquette deep in the Bolts’ zone to tie the score 1-1 at 12:14.
“They created some turnovers,” Cooper said. “They made us play under pressure a little bit, but I thought our guys handled it and we were able to at least get to the third period with a tie and we pulled it out.”
Tampa Bay has won four straight for the second time this season. The Bolts recorded a season-high six wins in a row from October 30 to November 9. And Tampa Bay was victorious despite being outshot 35-21.
“Our biggest issue was, we didn’t shoot,” Cooper said. “We were talking about it, we almost want to pass the puck in the net sometimes. We’ve got some skilled guys where on some night’s that’s going to work, but we can’t do that on a consistent basis.
The Lightning have a quick turnaround, playing at Buffalo on Tuesday to complete their sixth back-to-back set of the season. The Bolts are 2-3-0 – both wins coming in overtime/shootout – in the second game of back-to-backs. Tampa Bay hosts the Sabres Thursday, December 4, to start a four-game homestand at Amalie Arena.