Ondrej Palat was back in the lineup after missing much of the season’s opening half with a leg injury.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made his triumphant return, stopping 30-of-32 shots and participating in his first NHL shootout.
And, most importantly, the Lightning earned a victory and two points in their regular-season series finale against the Minnesota Wild.
The Bolts and Wild split the two-game season series and have split each of the last three seasons.
Tampa Bay is now tied with Ottawa for fifth place in the Atlantic Division and is three points back of third and an automatic postseason bid.
The Lightning rang in the New Year with a victory, ushering in a positive start to what is, hopefully, a better second half of the season.
How’d they do it?
Three Things from a shootout win ahead.
1. HOT OUT OF THE BLOCKS
Entering Saturday’s six-game homestand finale, the Lightning had given up the first goal of the game in four of the previous five contests. Tampa Bay played much of the homestand from behind, forced to chase the game.
It wasn’t a winning recipe for the Lightning, who were just 2-2-1 in those five games at a time when the Bolts needed more wins than losses to make up ground in the Atlantic Division standings.
Saturday, Tampa Bay got the start it wanted.
And the Lightning also got the two points it badly needed.
The Lightning recorded the first eight shots of the game and didn’t allow Minnesota to get off a shot until 15 minutes had passed in the first period. By that time, the Lightning already had a 1-0 lead thanks to Valtteri Filppula’s beautiful toe-drag, near-post bullet at 11:40.
The Lightning continued to control the pace of play in the second period and into the third, dominating play for the first 40 to 50 minutes.
“It not only was one of our better starts, it was probably the best first period we played all year,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “You could make an argument for 50 minutes it was the best 50 minutes we’ve played all year.”
Once Minnesota made its inevitable push, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, making his first start since Dec. 15 after being recalled Friday from Syracuse, came up with some huge saves to allow the Bolts to pull through in a shootout.
“We didn’t need him much for the first 50, but the last 10 to 12 minutes we really needed him and he bent a little bit but he didn’t break,” Cooper said.
2. SPECIAL SPECIALTY TEAMS
The Lightning penalty kill has been in the bottom half of the NHL rankings for nearly the entire season. Currently, the special teams unit ranks 19th in the league with a 79.5 percent success rate.
Lately, however, the Lightning penalty kill has been perfect. Since the debacle in Washington, where they gave up three power-play goals, allowing the Capitals to rally from a three-goal deficit, the Lightning have killed 17-straight penalties. They didn’t allow a single power-play goal on the entire homestand, tying a season-high for consecutive games without giving up a power-play goal, matching their run from Oct. 17-29.
The penalty kill’s best work came midway through the third period with the Lightning clinging to a 2-1 lead. Braydon Coburn put the puck out of play from his own end, drawing a delay of game penalty.
Minnesota had a chance to equalize and thought it had when Zach Parise tipped a puck in front past Vasilevskiy.
After a successful coach’s challenge however – the Bolts first this season – the goal was taken off the board for goaltender interference and the Lightning penalty kill took care of the rest of the power play, keeping the team in the lead.
The Lightning penalty kill has improved as the year has progressed. Tampa Bay now have the NHL’s 10th-best home penalty kill at 84.2 percent.
3. A WELCOME RETURN
Tampa Bay left wing Ondrej Palat missed eight-straight games coming into 2016 and 20 of the previous 22 contests.
A season after putting up a career-best 63 points, Palat has just two goals and six assists in 2015-16, partly because he’s played in only 19 games.
Finally fully healthy again, Palat returned to the lineup versus Minnesota – the opponent he initially hurt his leg against on Nov. 7 – and reminded everyone why he was, arguably, the Lightning’s most valuable player during last season’s Stanley Cup run.
If Palat was apprehensive at all about reinjuring his leg for a third time, he certainly didn’t show it Saturday. The 24-year-old was all over the ice, delivering big hits and timely passes. He led the Bolts with five hits, put three shots on Minnesota’s net and provided the primary assist on Nikita Kucherov’s go-ahead second-period goal by delivering the puck into a perfect spot in the slot so Kucherov could fire a one-timer past Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.
The point was Palat’s first since Nov. 5.
“For somebody who’s missed as many games as he has and to play the way he did tonight, he was a difference maker tonight,” Cooper said.
Following the game, Palat said it took a little time on the ice to regain his form.
“The synchronization between my hands and legs didn’t really go together the first few shifts, but as the game went on, I felt better and better,” he said.
For the first time in a long time, the Lightning have a nearly completely healthy roster. Joel Vermin, the only remaining Bolt still on the shelf, was an AHL callup brought up to the team to fill in when the injury bug hit.
Now, with a full complement of players available, the Lightning hope to regain their form from last year and starting climbing in the Atlantic standings.
“That lineup was very reminiscent of our playoff lineup, but we haven’t been able to do it all year,” Cooper said. “They were committed to win the hockey game tonight, and they did.”