But it was as close as one could come for an early-December game.
The Lightning occupied sixth place in the Atlantic Division standings entering the contest versus the Senators, who were tied for second in the Atlantic with Detroit, and were in danger of falling further behind in the playoff positioning race with a loss.
Tampa Bay’s 4-1 victory over Ottawa was, in essence, a four-point swing for the Bolts, who have started to gain some much-needed momentum and consistency of late with wins in three of their last four and six of their last nine. The Lightning gained some ground on their Atlantic competition and prevented the Senators from climbing higher out of reach.
The Lightning will get another chance to reel in the Senators in nine days when they host Ottawa again December 20.
But before that, let’s look at what the Lightning did well Thursday versus Ottawa in today’s 3 Things.
1. SPECIAL TEAMS REDEMPTION
The Lightning penalty kill was leaking oil entering Thursday’s matchup against the NHL’s best road power play team.
Ottawa was converting at a proficient 30.6 percent away from the Canadian Tire Centre on the power play. The Lightning had given up eight goals on 22 opponent power plays over the last five games.
The odds were not stacked in Tampa Bay’s favor.
The Bolts, though, responded with one of their better PK efforts of the season.
Ottawa was shut out on all three of its power plays. The first two netted nothing more than a single shot.
On the third, a late second-period advantage following a holding call to Valtteri Filppula, Ben Bishop bailed out the Bolts, sliding through the crease in any number of positions to keep the puck out before the end-of-period horn blew.
“Not the best save selection,” Bishop said of his five-save sequence to end the second. “But sometimes you’ve got to improvise.”
All three Ottawa power plays came with the outcome of the game still in doubt, the Lightning shutting the door to keep the Senators off the board.
“We have a really good penalty kill, so to be able to shut them down was good,” Bishop said. “We’ve had some bad games, but we don’t have a bad penalty kill. We just need to stay out of the box.”
Likewise, Tampa Bay’s power play responded with a big 5-on-3 goal late in the first period to nudge the Bolts in front.
Four nights earlier in Los Angeles, the Lightning, trailing 3-1 to the Kings, had a chance to get back into the game with a minute-plus 5-on-3, and they failed to even register a shot.
Before the Ottawa game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said his coaching staff had been “hammering home” an “attack-the-net mentality” during recent power-play practice sessions.
That extra work paid off, the Lightning stealing the puck at their own blue line and immediately pushing it up the ice to produce an odd-man advantage, which Nikita Kucherov capped in the slot with the first of his two goals off a feed from Steven Stamkos in the right circle.
“(5-on-3s) are weird because you feel like you have to score on that,” Cooper said. “And when we had the 5-on-3 in L.A. and we didn’t score, it’s kind of deflating, but you get one and all of a sudden your team picks up and, yeah, it’s a good feeling.”
2. RETURN OF PALAT
The Tampa Bay Lightning were missing, arguably, one of their top three most indispensable players with left wing Ondrej Palat on the shelf for over a month because of a leg injury suffered November 7 in Minnesota.
The Lightning played reasonably well in his absence, going 6-5-1 in the games he missed. But they still struggled to put goals on the scoreboard.
When Palat returned to the Lightning Thursday night, the Bolts were averaging just 2.32 goals per game, near the bottom of the NHL, a perplexing statistic consider Tampa Bay led the league in scoring a year ago and returned nearly the same roster save for the addition of Erik Condra to replace Brenden Morrow, a move that, on paper, should have resulted in a bit more offense.
Perhaps Palat’s return then can also spark a return to 2014-15 goal-scoring ways for the Bolts.
It certainly seemed to help in the 4-1 win over the Senators.
Palat was on the ice for two of the Lightning’s four goals, and, although he didn’t have an assist, he played a part in setting each one up.
On Kucherov’s 5-on-3 score, Palat was part of the Bolts’ odd-man rush and stopped on the right dot for a potential one-timer that drew the defense his way, giving Kucherov open space in the slot and a clear look at Craig Anderson’s net.
During the third period when Kucherov jabbed home the puck from the crease for his second goal, Palat was on the back door, there to put in the rebound should it come his way.
“He’s a huge part of our team,” Kucherov said. “He brings more energy.”
Before Thursday’s game, Triplets center Tyler Johnson said Palat’s return allowed him to play freer and more offensive-minded, Palat’s ability to dig pucks out of the corner and win battles giving Johnson a chance to slip into better offensive positions.
Against Ottawa, it was Kucherov who was the main benefactor of Palat’s return.
And the Lightning benefited as a whole from having one of their best players back.
3. THE TOP LINE
Despite the effectiveness of the Triplets in their return as a line, highlighted by Kucherov’s pair of goals, Cooper said the Lightning’s best combination Thursday was the J.T. Brown-Valtteri Filppula-Ryan Callahan line.
The evidence supports Cooper’s claim.
Teams coming off a long road trip tend to struggle in their first game back at home, and the Lightning certainly fell victim to that hockey truism in the opening period. With nearly three-quarters of the first complete, the Bolts had just one shot on goal. They struggled to maintain possession of the puck or string together multiple passes. The game had a ragged, lethargic feel to it.
But while the rest of the Lightning were still searching for their skates, the Brown-Filppula-Callahan line provided a jolt of energy with their physicality and hounded the opposition.
“They went head-to-head with Turris’ line and did a great job against them,” Cooper said.
With the Lightning hanging onto a tenuous 1-0 lead, Filppula provided some distance with his goal 25 seconds into the third period, the center capitalizing on a heady play by Brown to throw the puck on net knowing Filppula was charging on the back post and would have an easy rebound opportunity should Anderson not corral the puck cleanly.
Anderson didn’t, and Filppula pounced.
Brown sealed the win with his empty-net goal 14 seconds from the final horn.
“I was so glad Brown got that empty-netter because he deserved that,” Cooper said. “He was outstanding tonight.”
So were the rest of his linemates Thursday.