RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Lightning enjoyed a late wake-up call on Saturday morning. The tardy start then became Tampa Bay's theme Saturday night.
After the team's plane experienced mechanical problems Friday night in Tampa Bay, the Lightning didn't arrive in North Carolina until around 2:30 a.m. But after a few schedule adjustments, the late-arriving Lightning were able put together their second 4-3 overtime victory in just over 24 hours, knocking off the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC Center. Coupled with the Friday night win over the Rangers, Tampa Bay has won four straight.
"We got to sleep in a little bit this morning," said Steven Stamkos, who scored his second of two goals via the power play at 2:41 of overtime. "We slept, most guys, until at least 11 or 12. At least we got some good rest, then we pushed the meetings back a bit."
By the end of the second period, it appeared the Lightning were late arrivals for the game. With a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, Tampa Bay gave up three unanswered goals in the second period.
But the Lightning took advantage of a full two minutes of two-man advantage in the third to tie the game, then scored a controversial game winner, with Stamkos figuring in on all the key plays.
Just past the midway point in the third period, Carolina's Chad LaRose was whistled for hooking and Eric Staal for slashing. The Hurricanes made five defensive-zone clears before Martin St. Louis patiently set up Teddy Purcell for the tying goal in the slot.
"We know we have two minutes, so there's no panic," said St. Louis. "Even if it takes 1:58 to score that goal, so be it. You can't rush shots or make desperate plays. You just have to manage and make reads, and we did."
Then in overtime, the Lightning got another prime chance. Hurricanes center Brandon Sutter was called for roughing after running into goaltender Mathieu Garon. Stamkos was on Sutter's back when Sutter toppled the goaltender.
"I was trying to take his stick and I got my hand on his back," said Stamkos. "Sutter was going so fast. Whether I touched him or not, I think he was running into the goalie obviously. He didn't mean to do it. He was going hard to the net and had a good chance to score. They try to protect the goalies in this league. We were on the right end of the call and we capitalized on it."
Just like the game-tying goal, the Lightning needed most of the two minutes to bury the game winner. Teddy Purcell skated the puck near the blue line before sending it down low past Eric Staal and on to Stamkos's stick, where he buried the game-winner. It was his League-leading 47th tally of the season.
Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller took exception to the roughing call on Sutter.
"Sutter did what hockey players are supposed to do: they are supposed to drive to the net and go for plays, go for rebounds," Muller said. "That's hockey. It is hard at this pace to really go there and know if the goalie is in the crease or not. It's quick."
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher took a different approach in evaluating the critical call.
"It's the same call we were called on all year," he said. "The standard was the same."
The circumstances around the game-winning goal may have made for a debate, but there is no questioning how Tampa Bay has become a playoff contender just a couple weeks after moving players such as Pavel Kubina, Steve Downie and Dominic Moore ahead of the trade deadline.
"It was tough to see some guys go," said Boucher. "But the players in this room are competitors, and they want the end of their season to mean something. It's meant something all year. We say, the shame is not in losing, the shame is in not fighting."
The Hurricanes had plenty of fight, too. After Tampa Bay forward Tim Wallace scored his first NHL goal in the first period, Carolina answered in the second with two goals from Anthony Stewart and one from Jussi Jokinen. Stewart tied the game after taking a stretch pass from Staal. Then after Jokinen scored from the slot, Stewart made a nifty between-the-legs pass to the front of the net, which bounced past Garon.
After a 6-1-4 February, the Hurricanes have suffered two one-goal losses to start the month of March.
"A lot of people are talking about teams that are around us and their possibilities of making the playoffs, but no one talks about us," Muller said. "But if you look at our record since the All-Star break, we're right there -- if not better -- than these teams. Our guys have a good thing going. They believe in each other, they compete every night and we're just going to see what happens at the end of the day."
But for now, the Hurricanes remain eight points out of the final playoff position, while the Lightning have closed within two points of eighth-place Winnipeg, with only Washington sandwiched between them.
With Stamkos on its side, anything is possible for Tampa Bay.
"He just keeps on doing the stuff that makes him a very important team player," said Boucher. "That's why he's getting the success he's getting."
Stamkos didn't give much thought to his own accomplishments Saturday night. Like his coach, he couldn't help noticing how his team keeps doing the improbable.
"We may have not played our best game, but we found a way to win and that's what matters right now," Stamkos said. "We're character guys. We never give up."