On November 14, the Lightning held a one-goal lead late before Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad leveled the score with 38 seconds left in regulation. The Panthers eventually grabbed both points in a shootout.
Two days later, Ekblad struck again, scoring with 21 seconds to go to break a scoreless deadlock and send the home fans at the BB&T Center home happy following a 1-0 Florida win.
On Sunday, the Lightning finally got their revenge in a 3-1 victory.
And the Bolts managed to further close the gap between themselves and the Atlantic Division leaders.
The Lightning now sit just five points back of the Panthers for the top spot in the Atlantic and occupy third place in the division, two points behind second-place Detroit.
How were the Bolts able to handle the Cats on Sunday? We’ll examine the win in detail in today’s 3 Things.
1. WINNING MENTALITY
It’s amazing what a couple wins can do for a team’s confidence.
A week ago, the Lightning were still searching for consistency, hoping to string together consecutive positive results to close the gap with the leaders in the Atlantic.
Now, in the midst of a season-long five-game win streak, the Lightning have an aura of invincibility every time they step out on the ice.
Trailing by two versus Edmonton with 20 minutes to play?
The Bolts can handle it.
Surrender a two-goal lead to trail Pittsburgh late?
The Lightning currently feel they can rebound from any situation, rally from any deficit.
No circumstances are too great to overcome.
“We’ve been trying a little bit to find our identity, and when you’re winning one, losing one, winning two, losing one you kind of find yourself in a little bit of a rut,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But when you start stringing a few together, all of a sudden your confidence starts going. I don’t care what team you’re on in the league, you win a few in a row, you think you can win every single game. The more we’ve won, that’s kind of how that feeling’s been on the bench, and it’s really helped us so far.”
Tampa Bay watched Montreal sprint to the top of the Atlantic Division pack after the Canadiens won nine in a row to start the season.
Quietly, the Florida Panthers snuck by everybody in the Atlantic, winning 12-straight to leapfrog the entire division midway through the year.
Now, it’s the Bolts’ turn to put together a lengthy win streak.
They’re certainly enjoying the ride.
2. ROOT FOR SHU
Four seasons and 160 games into his NHL career, Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr has started to find his comfort zone in the league.
For most of his career, Sustr was stuck on the third defensive pairing, a youngster fighting for a regular role on the team. Now, he’s an established NHL player seeing regular time as a top four defender (against Florida he partnered with Jason Garrison on the second pairing).
His offensive contributions have grown too.
On Sunday, he provided the game-winning goal, getting deep in the offensive zone to follow Garrison’s shot from the point, the puck caroming off the back boards and out in front to Sustr, who was lurking on the post to backhand the rebound past Florida goalie Roberto Luongo.
“I’m pretty hard to miss, a 6’8” guy,” Sustr said when asked how he got so open on the post. “I kind of snuck up on the back door there, and it was a fortunate bounce and I was able to put it in.”
Sustr’s second goal of the season and third of his career ignited a big celebration amongst his teammates.
“He’s the one guy when he scores, I think just because he really hasn’t had a taste of scoring a lot of goals in the league, the guys are really excited for him on the bench,” Cooper said. “Talking about the D being active, that’s a defenseman scoring a goal six inches from the post, and that’s how we’ve needed for our guys to play is having them up in the play hanging in there. I was asked the question the other day who was the most improved player this year, and I said (Vladislav) Namestnikov. Well, if somebody had asked me who was a close second, I would say Sustr. We’re starting to reap the benefits of how he’s playing.”
3. QUIETLY EFFICIENT
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop didn’t necessarily stand out during his 26-save performance against Florida.
He didn’t have to.
For two periods, the Lightning limited the number of pucks sent Bishop’s way in building a 2-0 advantage, holding the Panthers to just 13 shots through 40 minutes.
In the third period with the Cats fighting to get back in the game, however, Bishop was at his best. Florida controlled possession and sent numerous waves of attack at Bishop over the course of the final period. The All-Star goalie didn’t buckle under the pressure, however, and nearly recorded his second-consecutive shutout.
Bishop stopped 13 of Florida’s 14 third-period shots to win his 18th game of the season.
“Personally, I don’t mind the shots,” Bishop said. “It’s a little more difficult when you only get three a period. I’ll embrace them, but the guys did a really good job of keeping the chances to a minimum.”
Bishop has now allowed two goals or fewer in 21 of his last 26 starts and 25 of 34 starts overall. He’s been the Lightning’s MVP through the first half of the season.
He reminded everybody why again on Sunday.
“Bish was outstanding, and especially when we really needed him down the stretch,” Cooper said. “Guys were getting in shot lanes and weren’t giving them good looks. It was a little frustrating; I think we took five penalties in that one. When you’re in tight games, you’ve got to kill them off. The fact that there were no special-teams goals scored -- they had a few more power plays than we did -- and to kill them off late, guys had a good feeling on the bench when we got out of that one in a 2-1 game.”