Friday’s game at Amalie Arena against Pittsburgh had it all: blown leads, comebacks, 5-on-3 power plays, overtime, a hat trick, contributions from all the game’s superstars and, most importantly, the home team fans leaving happy and satisfied following a thrilling 5-4 victory for the Lightning.
The win and the two points lifted Tampa Bay into third place in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning now sit just three points behind Detroit in the Atlantic and trail Florida, who comes to Amalie Arena on Sunday, by seven for the Atlantic lead.
Friday’s game had much to digest. We’ll touch on a few of the biggest moments in today’s 3 Things.
Following Tampa Bay’s morning skate at Amalie Arena, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was asked which of his players grew the most while the Bolts dealt with a series of nagging injuries to key members, keeping the team from fielding a complete lineup over the first half of the season.
Cooper, without hesitation, pointed to Vladislav Namestnikov, a tremendously-skilled offensive talent trying to break through on a team filled with similar players.
"He was one of those guys we weren’t sure where he was going to slot, especially when you look at our team and how we finished the playoffs and he wasn’t in the top nine," Cooper said.
Cooper made that comment before the Pittsburgh game, which Namestnikov entered having posted five assists in his last three games.
After his performance against the Penguins, the 23-year-old center made his coach sound like a prophet.
Namestnikov scored his first career hat trick and netted the game-winning goal in overtime to lead the Lightning past Pittsburgh, giving the Bolts two important points in a matchup of teams fighting to get into playoff position and stay there. All three goals were scored in different ways, showing the versatility of the third-year pro.
Before two minutes had passed in the game, Namestnikov took a pass from Steven Stamkos at the center line and raced down the right wing into the offensive zone, his world-class speed allowing him to get behind the Penguins defense. As he entered the right circle, Namestnikov whipped a well-placed shot at the net, beating Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury over his glove.
"I just found a lane and shot the puck," he said.
Midway through the second with the Lightning on a power play, Namestnikov parked in front of the goal and got a piece of Victor Hedman’s blast from the point, deflecting the puck up and over Fleury’s glove again to put the Bolts up 3-1.
In overtime, Namestnikov got a rebound at the side of the net and shrewdly tried to bank the puck off Fleury. Instead, it went off the stick of Patric Hornqvist and into the goal, setting off a raucous celebration at Amalie Arena.
"It was great," Namestnikov said. "We came back to tie it there at 4-4, and to get the overtime winner was something special."
In his post-game press conference, Cooper said Namestnikov fought through some difficult stretches where he was sent down to AHL Syracuse or playing limited fourth-line minutes with the Lightning to develop into the playmaker he’s become.
"He’s being a big-time contributor playing with some big-time players and he is fitting in just fine," Cooper said.
Twice in the last three games, Tampa Bay has held a lead only to give it up in the closing minutes of the final period, forcing overtime.
On both occasions, the Lightning pulled through anyway, winning the game in the extra session.
Earlier this season, when the Bolts were still struggling to find their identity and searching for consistency, these were games they likely would have lost. But since rallying from a two-goal deficit in the third period in Edmonton, these Lightning seem to have adopted the philosophy lately that no matter the circumstances, they’ll pull through.
Friday’s win versus the Penguins was just another example.
Pittsburgh thoroughly outplayed the Lightning in the final period, controlling the puck for much of the 20-minute session and peppering Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with shot after shot. When Chris Kunitz scored with 6:12 to go to put the Penguins up 4-3, completing a rally from a two-goal deficit for the Pens, it would have been easy for the Lightning to pack it in, resigned to their fate.
But this team has learned to fight over the last few weeks and has developed a never-give-up mentality that will serve it well in the second half of the season.
"We were a bit on our heels in the third period a little bit,” Cooper said. “We couldn’t win faceoffs. We didn’t have any puck possession. It was weird, it was like when we went down, we went back to how we were playing in the first half of the game...The boys showed some great will coming back."
3. ARE YOU KIDDING ME, ANTON?
The most unbelievable play from Friday’s game was Anton Stralman’s beautiful spin-o-rama backhanded goal up and over Fleury to tie the game 4-4 late in the third period.
Not so much the play itself, but the fact it came from Stralman, a defenseman not known for his finishing moves in the offensive zone.
In the locker room after the game, Stralman said the goal was the prettiest of the 32 he’s scored over his nine-year NHL career.
"It was a big goal too, obviously, with us having to fight back in that game," he said. "Unfortunately, we put ourselves in that situation, staring at defeat with five minutes left. I don’t think that should have happened."
The best part of the play was after Stralman spun around to elude Ben Lovejoy, he took a moment to gather himself before calmly lifting the puck into the far upper corner. Fleury was already on the ice, anticipating the shot would come in low.
"He’s been saving that one," Cooper joked postgame. "He’s been working on that one in practice."