A Tuesday tilt in Sunrise against the cross-state rival Florida Panthers wasn't a must-win affair.
But it was supremely important all the same for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With only one game in hand on its cross-state rival, Tampa Bay couldn't afford a loss to the Panthers, which occupied second place in the Atlantic Division and owned a four-point advantage over the Lightning entering Tuesday. The third of four regular season meetings between the two teams had the potential for a four-point swing.
A loss would send the Lightning tumbling further down the division standings and damage an already fragile psyche.
A win would set them right back in the thick of the Atlantic playoff chase (it's early, we know) with the top two teams in the Eastern Conference entering AMALIE Arena Thursday (Boston) and Saturday (Washington).
With several implications on the line, the Lightning turned in one of their finest performances of the season - and maybe their best overall defensively - in a 2-1 victory, as dominant a one-goal win one can have in the NHL.
Tampa Bay outshot Florida 48-28, including a 34-15 advantage over the final two periods.
"From the drop of the puck, I liked our game," Jon Cooper said.
Here's what was so pleasing to the Lightning head coach.
Video: Postgame | Steven Stamkos
1. TONE-SETTING KILL
Mathieu Joseph was a healthy scratch for Tampa Bay's 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders Monday night, this coming after he was dinged for six minutes of penalties for high-sticking in the previous contest.
So when he was sent to the penalty box three minutes into his return to action Tuesday for - you guessed it - high-sticking, the start was less than ideal for Joseph and the Lightning.
On the ensuing penalty kill, however, the Lightning gained momentum. They were strong denying zone entry passes and only surrendered about :20 to :30 seconds of time for Florida to get set up in the zone, which they were able to handle easily.
A couple shifts after that solid kill, a determined forecheck by Stamkos freed up the puck behind the Florida net. Alex Killorn nudged the puck ahead into an area for Stamkos, and the Lightning captain made a move at the net to get Sergei Bobrovsky out of position and deposit the puck at the far post to give the Bolts the all-important opening goal just 6:42 into the game.
"Our penalty kill was big, really led by Vasy, when they had those few power plays early in the first period," Cooper said.
Later in the first, Kevin Shattenkirk was called for interference on a Florida rush. The Panthers second power play was much more dangerous than the first, but the Lightning were still able to get out unscathed.
Shutting down Florida's power play early gave the Lightning confidence and took some away from a Panthers team that had scored a pair of power-play goals in a victory over the Bolts earlier this season.
Video: Stamkos, Killorn score in 2-1 victory vs. Panthers
2. VASILEVSKIY HEATING UP
Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy holder and is one of the premier goalies in the game, if not the premier goalie.
His numbers, a 2.91 goals-against average and .907 save percentage, haven't been up to the standard he's set in previous seasons, however.
In a 7-1 blowout win over San Jose Saturday, Vasilevskiy had his strongest start of the season, stopping 37 shots and allowing one meaningless goal with the game well in hand.
And he followed it up with another scintillating start in Sunrise, the 25-year-old Russian saving 27-of-28 shots and keeping the Panthers at bay until an Evgenii Dadonov goal with two minutes remaining and the extra attacker wiped out his shutout bid.
Vasilevskiy still doesn't have a shut out this season. But he's given up just one goal in back-to-back starts, his best result in two-consecutive games this season. Entering Florida, the fewest combined goals Vasilevskiy had surrendered in back-to-back starts was four.
"You let your goalie see the first one and you can clear out rebounds and not give them those opportunities, you're going to give yourself a chance," Cooper said. "Have to feel for (Vasilevskiy) at the end. Takes a big-time tip to beat him, but it was a great effort all the way around."
Following Monday's loss to the Islanders, Stamkos said it was starting to get to the point of the season where the Lightning needed to string together some wins.
With Vasilevskiy starting to heat up and turning in performances like the ones that won him the Vezina Trophy a season ago, that win streak is much more likely to come.
Video: TBL@FLA: Killorn backhands rebound into the twine
3. FINISHING STRONG
The Lightning headed into the third period with a 2-0 lead thanks to Stamkos' goal in the first period and Alex Killorn's backhand rebound marker in the second.
The Bolts expected a push from the Panthers to start the third. And with the Lightning playing the second half of a back-to-back set, there was a question of whether the Bolts would have enough left in the tank to see the win over the finish line.
But an interesting thing happened.
The Lightning got stronger as the game progressed
And over much of the third, particularly the first half of the third, they controlled the puck and the game.
"We had success in the first and second periods, especially the second, and we didn't want to, we just couldn't change our game," Cooper said. "The one thing is when you sit there and say, 'Well, let's just protect the lead,' well that's what you want to do but we still want to have kind of that attack mentality. But the guys were really committed. In the last few games, the guys have been committed, it's just been tough because we haven't been getting some points we felt we should have. We definitely felt we should get points tonight, the key was to make sure we were greedy and got two and not give up one and that's what happened tonight."
Even when Florida would make a small push by getting the puck in the offensive zone and holding it there for an attempt or two, the Lightning were quick to get it out and counter with an attack of their own. The Bolts outshot the Panthers 16-6 in the third period. They had numerous chances to add to their lead, notably Killorn ringing the post on a quick shot from a face-off. But the Bolts were measured in their attempts to go for goal too. They protected their net first and foremost and countered when the opportunity was there.
"That was the one thing that was making me a little nervous, we couldn't get that third one," Cooper said. "We had all these chances. Tip your hat to their goaltender, he was outstanding. You get that third one and you might be able to breathe a little easier, but the boys did a great job and held on."
Despite controlling play, the Lightning nearly gave up a goal with 8:51 to go, Brett Connolly creating a wicked change of direction with a tip from the slot. But after video review, Connolly was deemed to have contacted the puck with a high stick.
Florida never sniffed the net again until the waning minutes with Bobrovsky pulled for the extra attacker, the Lightning ensuring they would take home both points and leave the Panthers with none.