Despite outpacing New Jersey by 27 points entering the next-to-last regular season game of the year, the Tampa Bay Lightning have found wins hard to come by against the Devils.
Before Thursday’s game, the Lightning were just 1-3-1 versus New Jersey over the last two seasons. The Devils in fact were the only Eastern Conference team the Bolts hadn’t beat in 2014-15.
Tyler Johnson ensured the Lightning rectified that anomaly before heading into the postseason. Johnson, playing his second-straight game since missing three to injury, scored two goals, including the game-winner 1:24 into overtime, to pace the Lightning past a pesky New Jersey side 4-3 in overtime.
The Lightning finish 1-1-1 against the Devils this season.
“I thought we did a good job of fighting at the end and getting the extra point there,” Bolts goalie Ben Bishop said. “It was a little bit of a different game. The puck was bouncing everywhere. It was almost like playing with a tennis ball out there for a bit. Once things kind of calmed down there, I think we were able to take advantage.”
Tampa Bay (49-24-8 106 points) continues to add to a pair of franchise records, earning its 49th win of the season and 31st at home.
The Lightning still trail Montreal by two points for the Atlantic Division lead, however, following the Canadiens 4-3 OT victory of their own over Detroit. Tampa Bay can claim the division title, but it has to defeat Boston and hope for a Montreal regulation loss in Toronto on Saturday.
“Game 82 and I think we still have a chance for first place,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s pretty exciting to have that still an option.”
The power play came up big for the Lightning in front of a sellout crowd at Amalie Arena, scoring on three-of-eight opportunities.
Johnson capitalized on a New Jersey penalty late in regulation. With a 4-on-3 Lightning advantage, Johnson saw his cross-crease pass to the back post for Ondrej Palat deflect off the leg of the Devils’ Seth Helgeson and past goalie Keith Kinkaid, securing two points for the Lightning.
Palat and Kucherov had the assists on Johnson’s dramatic winner, his 29th goal of the season.
“There wasn’t really a whole lot open,” Johnson said. “I just kind of tried to throw a hoper over to (Palat), and it hit off the D-man’s shin pad and went in…
“It’s always nice when you get those lucky goals like that.”
With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, the Bolts regained the lead on Steven Stamkos’ 43rd goal of the season. From his trademark spot inside the left circle, Stamkos went down to his right knee to dig out Palat’s cross-ice pass and rifle a shot past Kinkaid at the near post on a Lightning power play.
Stamkos scored his third goal in two games and moved to within two points of 500 for his career. Palat and Victor Hedman had assists, Hedman returning to the lineup for the first time after missing three games with a lower-body injury.
New Jersey (32-35-14, 78 points) wouldn’t go away, though, and knotted the score again just 16 seconds after Stamkos’ goal, Steve Bernier scoring his second of the night after finding some open space to the right edge of goal and potting a shot off the left shoulder of Bishop and into the net to make it 3-3 at 17:58 of the middle frame.
“The discouraging thing about that (goal) was I don’t know if the announcer had even announced our goal, and they’d already scored,” Cooper said.
New Jersey scored three seconds into the game’s opening power play to register the first goal. Off the draw, the puck sat on the left dot briefly before Bernier quickly zipped the puck past Bishop stick side for a 1-0 Devils lead 5:06 into the first period.
“The goals we gave up, I don’t know, I think those are game 81 goals when there’s not a ton on the line,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t creep into our game.”
The Lightning answered almost immediately, tying the game 1:20 after the Devils scored, Johnson netting his first of the night. On an odd-man rush, Johnson dished off to his right for Kucherov at the Devils’ blue line. Kucherov carried the puck between the circles then deceptively slipped a pass to the right post for a wide-open Johnson, who easily tapped the puck into the net at 6:26.
Johnson registered his 70th point of the season on the goal. Kucherov and Palat tallied assists.
The Triplets accounted for two goals and nine points against New Jersey.
“I think they’ve kind of found their stride,” Cooper said. “I thought they were outstanding tonight.”
The Lightning took their first lead soon after on the power play, Nikita Nesterov getting his second of the year to put the Bolts up 2-1 at 9:13. Nesterov ripped a shot from the center of the blue line that eluded Kinkaid as Ryan Callahan provided a screen in front.
Johnson and Kucherov again figured in the scoring as each had an assist on the play.
New Jersey tied the score 2-2 at 10:17 of the second period as Bishop saved Stephen Gionta’s shot from between the circles but couldn’t stop Patrik Elias’ rebound attempt.
“We had the puck on our stick and we just throw it up the wall and we just didn’t compete the way we should have and it’s in our net,” Cooper said.
Bishop made 21 stops to pick up victory No. 39 of the season and add to his career-high and franchise-best win total. The Bolts outshot New Jersey 31-24.
The Lightning conclude the regular season Saturday against the Boston Bruins at Amalie Arena. The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin April 15 with the Bolts likely to play their opening game the following day at home on Thursday, April 16.