The Rangers were on a nine-game winning streak. New York was tied with Montreal and Dallas atop the NHL standings prior to playing the Lightning.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, limped (literally) into the contest having dropped four of its last five. Two-thirds of the Triplets line, Ondrej Palat (lower body) and Tyler Johnson (upper body), were sitting out due to injury. Three more lineup regulars, Cedric Paquette (upper body), Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed), Ryan Callahan (lower body), were also on the shelf.
Luckily for the Lightning, games aren’t played on paper.
The Bolts put together perhaps their most spirited performance of the season, limiting a Rangers team ranking fourth in the NHL for goals per game (3.00) to just 21 shots and a single tally and scoring a shorthanded marker in the closing stages to set off a wild celebration inside Amalie Arena following a 2-1 win.
Let’s relive last night’s dramatics and analyze the biggest takeaways from a thoroughly satisfying win, the Bolts fifth straight in the regular season against the Rangers, in today’s 3 Things.
1. TURNING THE TIDE
During Tampa Bay’s recent slump, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper sounded like a broken record, repeatedly telling reporters his team was playing well and deserving of more positive results than his team was receiving after each mounting defeat.
Just in the last seven days, the Lightning lost a point at home to Florida when they gave up a game-tying goal with 38 seconds to go in a 5-4 shootout loss. Two days later, the Lightning deserved at least a point at Florida but got nothing after Aaron Ekblad’s game-winner with 21 seconds remaining in regulation.
Thursday’s game had all the makings of a third-straight late-game collapse. Tampa Bay jumped out to a rare early lead on Alex Killorn’s first period goal and held that advantage through the second period and most of the third.
With a little less than six minutes remaining, however, the Rangers’ Dominic Moore leveled the score, and New York had a chance to take its first lead late when Brian Boyle was whistled for interference with 1:26 to go in regulation.
Rather than succumbing to déjà vu, resigned to their tough-luck fate, the Lightning dug their skates in and came away with the points they deserved.
“It’s one of those things where we get on the PK, and the only thing we’re really focused on is killing the penalty,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “We’re not trying to score a goal. After we saw the fast break 2-on-1, we all got up, and (Valtteri Filppula and J.T. Brown) made an unbelievable play.”
Perhaps this can be the victory the Lightning point to later in the season when they say, ‘That’s where it started to turn for us.’
“They score with six minutes left, it very easily could have been, ‘Well, here we go again,’” Cooper said. “But, that’s not the case at all. Our vibe’s been very good the last couple weeks. We just haven’t been pointing. (Thursday) we did. I was just really happy for the guys.”
With all of the callups in Tampa Bay’s lineup, fans had to wonder whether they were watching the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Syracuse Crunch play Thursday at Amalie Arena.
The Bolts had four players on the ice – Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden, Joel Vermin and Luke Witkowski – who were skating for the Crunch a week earlier.
On Thursday, they injected life into the Lightning lineup and proved they are capable of playing solid minutes at the NHL level
“That’s our depth,” Cooper said. “We needed that. We don’t have them, I don’t know how this turns out.”
Marchessault played an all-around game, producing three shots, three hits and two takeaways. Blunden had two shots and two hits in eight-plus minutes. Witkowski served as the Bolts’ extra defensemen in their 11 forward/7 defenseman alignment and got a little more than seven minutes of ice time.
And Vermin, making his NHL debut, made a couple of nice moves in the offensive zone to show off his skill.
“It didn’t look like it was his first NHL game,” Cooper said. “Really proud of him.”
All four, along with Mike Angelidis will have to continue to produce for the injury-depleted Bolts in upcoming games.
Cooper said there’s no reason to think they won’t.
“Blunden, he’s a big body,” Cooper said. “We need that on our team. Luke didn’t play a ton of minutes, but he was safe, he got the puck out and he was big and strong down there. And Marchie was dangerous again. He gets one or two really great chances a game, and (Henrik) Lundqvist robbed him with one glove save…He’s always on the verge of something happening.”
3. THE UNSUNG HERO
Lost in the shuffle of Ben Bishop’s brilliance in net and Filppula’s thrilling game-winning goal and Killorn’s first goal since October 29 (vs. Colorado), J.T. Brown had one of his best games of the season and was a catalyst for the Bolts’ big win.
Brown supplied the assist on Filppula’s shorthanded game-winner, carrying the puck into the Rangers’ zone, holding enough to get Lundqvist sliding to his right before slipping the puck over to a wide-open Filppula on Lundqvist’s left post.
“It was a great pass,” Killorn said. “He held onto it for so long, I think Lundqvist thought (Brown) was probably going to shoot it.”
But Brown’s importance was felt well before his game-winning assist. He continually got into skirmishes with the Rangers and was a pest all night. He finished with a game-high five hits. He had a pair of takeaways. And he injected energy into a Lightning lineup that was in need of an adrenaline boost.
“If I was going to look back and say, ‘Who was the guy that had the most impact on this game besides the two goaltenders?’ I thought it was J.T. Brown,” Cooper said. “He was under their skin. He was in scrums. He was hitting everybody. He was using his speed, and he was just basically ticking everybody on their team off. And I thought it was very fitting that he was the one who set up the winner.”