GLENDALE, Ariz. – With eight regulars out with injury and playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher put struggling Dwayne Roloson between the pipes and asked the 42-year-old veteran to hold the fort until what was left of his tired team could find some legs.
Roloson was great early and just good enough at the end to give the Lightning back-to-back road wins for the first time all season. He recorded his first win since Nov. 17 as the Lightning built a 4-1 lead, and then had to hang on for a 4-3 win against the slumping Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on Saturday night.
Steven Stamkos opened the scoring with his League-leading 32nd goal and Teddy Purcell, Martin St. Louis and Steve Downie followed his lead as the Lightning peppered former teammate Mike Smith with four goals on their first 16 shots in their first meeting since he left for Phoenix as a free agent.
Tampa Bay had gone 0-6-1 to open the month of January before rebounding with wins against Boston and Dallas and have now matched a season high with three straight victories
"I was really happy for Rollie. He had a good game," Boucher said. "Let's not kid ourselves. On a back-to-back, you need your goalie to play great because it's just an unfair fight. He was great, and he needed a game to turn his way. Tonight we gave him enough goals, but he had to fight through because everything was going against us at the end."
Lauri Korpikoski, Keith Yandle and Ray Whitney scored for Phoenix, which remains in 12th place in the Western Conference and slipped to 9-9-4 on home ice and 0-1-1 on a season-long, six-game homestand. The Coyotes have only one win in their last seven games and just three in the last 15 (3-7-5) dating back to Dec. 23.
"It's do-or-die now because we can't afford to throw away any more points," Smith said. "Every game is going to be a playoff game for us."
It was the first meeting between Roloson and Smith since the two former the goalie tandem in Tampa Bay last year. Roloson arrived in a January trade, took the starting job from the struggling Smith and led the Lightning to within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Smith left for Phoenix as a free agent and has shined all year, while Roloson was 0-6-1 in his last seven starts for a team that has allowed League-worst 163 goals. But Roloson was sharp early Saturday, stopping 15 shots in the first period and finished with 33 for just his seventh win in 24 games.
He was knocked down by a Martin Hanzal elbow with five minutes left – lying motionless on the ice for more than a minute – but stayed in the game to record the win.
"We made it too close for comfort, but Rollie stepped up tonight and got a big one," said Stamkos, who now has 52 points for the season. "He played unbelievable. He made the big saves early that allowed us to get the lead."
It was a difficult night on the other end for Smith, who saw only 21 shots and gave up a soft goal to Downie late in the second period when the Coyotes had shaved the deficit to 3-1 and were pressuring the Tampa Bay net. Afterward, he put the loss on his shoulders.
"We should win that game. We scored three goals and we should win most of those," Smith said. "We talk about having everyone on board and if one or two guys aren't, we aren't going to win -- and that goes for the goalie, too. It stings anytime you lose, but definitely when you aren't at your best.
Smith remains good friends with several Lightning players, including several who burned him Saturday.
"It was kind of funny of funny with Smitty that myself, Downs and Marty … are all very close to him and we all snuck one by him today," Stamkos said. "He's going to be a little disappointed, but for us it was more than (the game), it was great to see him and hopefully we get a chance to talk to him (before leaving)."
Both teams lost players in the first period. The Lightning, playing without eight injured regulars, lost left wing Ryan Malone to an upper-body injury. And the Coyotes, already without defensemen Adrian Aucoin and David Schlemko, lost blueliner Derek Morris on his third shift (lower body), which shook up the defense pairings and led to coverage problems that proved costly.
Tampa Bay beat the Coyotes for the 10th time in the last 12 meetings – and much like last season's 8-3 rout, the Lightning made it look easy early.
Phoenix outshot the Lightning 12-2 in the first 10 minutes, but didn't have many choice scoring chances among them. Tampa Bay, meanwhile made the most of its chances as two red-hot scorers cashed in.
Stamkos, who had a five-game point streak stopped Friday in Dallas, scored his 12th goal in the last 13 games when he lost Phoenix defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and was all alone at the top of the crease to accept a St. Louis pass for an easy one. It was the seventh assist in the last five games for St. Louis and the 17th in his last 15 games since returning from injury.
Just 3:37 later, Smith stopped a Pavel Kubina shot from the point, but Purcell was sitting on the doorstep when the rebound trickled free. Purcell, who had two goals including the game-winner in Dallas, flipped the puck by the down-and-out Smith for his fifth in the last six games and 12th overall to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead.
"It seemed like we were banging away and doing whatever we can to create scoring chances," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "And every five chances we create, we get nothing. Then they get one and they seem like easy goals … that puts a frustration level into your group."
The second period started like the first – with Phoenix shooting often, but Tampa Bay scoring.
On the heels of three strong shifts by Phoenix, the Lightning broke out on the rush and St. Louis flew by defenseman Chris Summers and put a wrist shot over Smith's glove at 7:33 to give Tampa Bay a three-goal cushion.
Things looked even worse for Phoenix when Hanzal took an interference penalty, but the Coyotes turned it into a positive. Korpikoski took a Boyd Gordon pass down the ice, side-stepped St. Louis and beat Roloson to the top left corner at 8:29. It was Korpikoski's 11th goal and his third shorthanded – one behind Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck and New Jersey's Adam Henrique for the NHL lead.
Given new life, Smith fumbled it away. At 16:39, Downie steamed down the right wing and offered a shot that Smith saw clearly, tried to glove and dropped. The puck tumbled in and Tampa Bay was back in control at 4-1.
"It comes down to making saves and that fourth one is just a back-breaker," Smith said.
The Coyotes kept coming, with 11 scoring chances in the third period and two goals. Yandle made it 4-2 at 3:35, one-timing a Korpikoski pass off the left-side boards that weaved through traffic and by Roloson. And when Stamkos took a silly tripping penalty in the Phoenix zone, Whitney put an Ekman-Larsson feed through a Hanzal screen at 16:01 to put the Coyotes within a goal.
Stamkos took another bad penalty with 26.1 seconds left, but Phoenix couldn't score 6-on-4 and the Lightning survived. Roloson finished the game with a sore back and no edge on his right skate after he collapsed to the ice after Hanzal's hit, but Boucher said he had to let his veteran finish.
"I'm looking at him and you could see in his face, 'Hey, I'm doing this,'" Boucher said. "He's a fighter and I'm not going to prevent him from fighting … that's for sure."