TAMPA - What a difference a day makes.
On Friday night in Sunrise, the Tampa Bay Lightning had to go to overtime before a goal by Steven Stamkos gave them a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers in the front-end of a home-and-home series. There were no such dramatics in the return match on Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum, as the Lightning scored three second-period goals and breezed to a 5-1 victory.
"Tonight we really pushed the pace," said Stamkos, who scored twice. "We're utilizing our speed and we're confident right now. When you get confidence good things happen and you get rewarded."
Martin St. Louis scored 2:07 into the game, marking only the eighth time in 22 games that the Lightning (11-9-2) has scored first. Tampa Bay then put the game away in the second period by scoring three goals in a span of less than seven minutes.
Tom Pyatt made it 2-0 with a backhander over Jacob Markstrom's shoulder at 3:49 for his first goal as a member of the Lightning. Stamkos followed with his first goal of the game at 6:02, and Ryan Malone finished the blitz with his fifth goal of the season at 10:35.
Mathieu Garon, starting his second straight game for Tampa Bay, lost his shutout bid with 2:17 remaining when Jack Skille collected a Garon miscue behind the net and fed the puck across the crease to Shawn Matthias for his third goal of the season. Stamkos sealed the win by beating Markstrom with 59 seconds left. Garon finished with 24 saves and allowed only two goals in the home-and-home sweep.
"These past two games were really important," Garon said. "We played physical and our system was pretty much perfect."
Stamkos has goals in seven of his past 10 games and with an assist Saturday night on Malone's goal, he has assists in four of his past six games.
Markstrom, playing in his first game since Nov. 3, finished with 29 saves on 34 shots.
Tampa Bay lost the first two games against its intrastate rival, but has won the last three -- though Saturday's win was the first one that didn't go past regulation.
The Lightning gave Florida (12-7-4) plenty of opportunities to get back into the game, including six power-play chances, but the Panthers could not capitalize against a penalty kill that entered the game at 73.8 percent at home, 28th. The Panthers went 0-for-10 on the power play in the two games.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen cited a "lack of will" as a big reason for his team's poor showing.
"We have a lot of excuses but we got outplayed and the score shows how the game played out," he said. "We need to get back to the way we've been successful and we didn't do that for the last four or five periods."
Tampa Bay outhit the Panthers 32-19.
The back-to-back wins allowed Tampa Bay to chip three points from the Panthers' Southeast Division lead, but Lightning coach Guy Boucher isn't thinking about a playoff race this early in the season.
"I don't care about the points," Boucher said. "That has nothing to do with our focus. It's about us being better than what we're supposed to be and in the end we'll see where the points take us. If you focus on other teams, you get lost."
St. Louis' first period goal marked his 300th in a Lightning sweater -- pretty good for a guy who joined Tampa Bay as a free agent 11 years ago after Calgary let him go.
"Here you have a great example of a guy who is here for all the right reasons," Boucher said." Tampa Bay is extremely lucky to have such an individual, not just a hockey player, but a man. The kids, the people in the building, the fans, they love him, but if they knew him like I know him, they'd love him even more."