The Tampa Bay Lightning are starting to look like the team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
After a 1-7-0 skid stretching back to November, the Lightning have now won two straight, including Saturday’s 3-2 win against Columbus at Nationwide Arena.
"Things are obviously going better now," said Steven Stamkos, who was again the hero with the game-winning goal and an assist after getting the OT winner Thursday against Calgary. "When we had a lead in the third, it was almost automatic for us last year. That's what we have to get back to."
In his first matchup against the team he spent two seasons with before signing with Tampa Bay this summer, Mathieu Garon stopped 26 shots – including a couple of point-blank efforts during a late Jackets’ power play – to move back to .500 (8-8-1).
"We were patient in the third. We closed (out) everything," Garon said. "We didn't give them much. That's how we have to close a game."
Blair Jones and Eric Brewer scored first-period goals for Tampa Bay (14-16-2). Key for the Lightning was the top line, shuffled by coach Guy Boucher to include Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Dana Tyrell.
All three played a role in Stamkos' eventual winner at 10:05 of the second period, a goal that gave the Lightning a 3-1 lead. After some sustained pressure in Columbus zone in which both Jared Boll and Nikita Nikitin failed on clearing attempts, Lecavalier settled the puck and fed Stamkos, who found space in the left circle with Tyrell running interference. Stamkos one-timed a shot high past Steve Mason (25 saves) for his League-leading 20th goal of the season.
"He kind of faked the guy and gave it right back," Stamkos said of Lecavalier’s deft pass. "When you're playing with really good players you have to kind of expect those things. He made a great play."
Despite goals by captain Rick Nash and RJ Umberger – and two assists by Vinny Prospal -- Columbus (9-19-4) was always playing catch-up to the Bolts. The Jackets finished a five-game homestand 1-4-0, with the lone win coming in a shootout against Vancouver on Tuesday.
The Jackets pressured late, especially when Brewer was sent off for cross-checking with 3:08 left in regulation, but Garon stopped all eight shots he faced in the third period.
"We've been in this situation so many times," coach Guy Boucher said. "We were able to get away with it."
Despite being outshot 11-5 in the first period, Tampa Bay skated off at the first intermission with a 2-0 lead. Teddy Purcell hesitated in the trapezoid as he looked for options, and before the Jackets could close him down, he poked a pass through to a streaking Jones, who pushed the puck past Mason at 7:27 for his second of the season.
Stamkos recorded his 17th assist when he doubled back on a move near the left boards and crossed to Brewer, who squared just beyond the right circle and finished high past a partially-screened Mason at 18:12. It was the veteran defenseman’s first since the second game of the Lightning's first-round series against Pittsburgh last spring.
"It's been a while," Brewer said. "Maybe I should buy a Powerball."
Umberger's power-play goal 5:43 into second made it 2-1. With Jones off for cross-checking, Prospal threw a puck to Umberger, who was cutting through the crease. The pass drew Garon off his line, and Umberger circled the net swiftly and finished for his sixth of the season.
After Stamkos made it a two-goal game again, Nash got the Jackets within a goal at 12:14 when he stuffed home the rebound of Jeff Carter’s long blast for his 10th of the season. But that was as close as Columbus would come.
"You can't get behind in this League," Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel said. "We had chances but couldn't beat their goaltender early on. We had to find a way to do that, especially when we had momentum going our way."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report