NEW YORK -- It took 11 rounds of a shootout Thursday, but the Tampa Bay Lightning achieved their goal for the Christmas break with a 4-3 win against the New York Rangers -- first place in the Southeast Division.
After burning through the likes of Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, all of whom failed to score, it was Ryan Malone who beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with a perfectly placed wrist shot off the crossbar to win it. Dan Ellis made nine stops in the shootout and 34 in regulation to help the Lightning improve to 5-0-1 in their last six as they head into a two-day holiday vacation.
The Lightning and Washington Capitals both have 45 points, but the Bolts are on top because they've played two fewer games. Third-place Atlanta is just two points behind.
The Lightning were coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Wednesday night while the Rangers hadn't played since Saturday. But it was the weary team playing its third game in four nights that dug down to get two points by winning the longest shootout in the NHL this season.
"It was huge," said St. Louis, who had a goal and an assist. "Last night, we didn't play the way we wanted. I thought tonight, we responded. We got the two points before Christmas."
Ellis was brilliant while the Lightning were constantly struggling to get the puck out of their own zone. The Rangers dominated the second and third periods, but Ellis stopped 26 of 27 shots, many of them high-quality chances.
"Tonight, you've really got to give it to New York. They played a very strong game," Ellis said. "They hemmed us in our zone most of the game. Especially in the second and third period, they were really buzzing. They just kept getting pucks low and they would beat us to those pucks. They really came with a lunch pail attitude and had us on our heels a little bit. But we continued to plug through, had a strong overtime and we ended up getting that big goal in the shootout."
It took long enough, though. After Victor Hedman and Adam Hall gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead in the shootout, rookie Mats Zuccarello, who was making his NHL debut after coming to prominence during the 2010 Winter Olympics for Norway, scored a gorgeous goal to force the eight extra rounds.
As the shootout went deeper and deeper, Ellis said he felt more and more confident.
"You get a little better feel for your gaps and your reads," Ellis said. "It's almost an advantage to a goaltender to have it go a little bit longer because you get that feel that you don't get in that two- or three-shot shootout."
If you're thinking it's weird that Hedman led off for the Lightning and Hall, who has 4 goals in 35 games this year, went second, then you're in the same boat as Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.
"The funny thing is, we've tried all kinds of guys in the beginning of the year. We always lose the shootouts," said Boucher, whose team was 0-2 in the shootout before getting two wins in the last six days. "Last time we won it (Wednesday vs. the Thrashers) was because we sent Hedman out there out of the blue. Then we practiced a bit and found out Hall is really good so we put him out there.
"Steve Yzerman thought that was weird. But he thought Hedman was weird the other time before that so I just have to find one more guy that's weird to put out there to do a 1-2-3 punch."
The Lightning jumped to a quick lead when St. Louis intercepted a Michal Rozsival pass in the neutral zone to get a breakaway. St. Louis showed patience before snapping a wrister beyond Lundqvist's blocker to make it 1-0 just 2 minutes into the game.
That's when the Rangers began turning up the heat on the tired Lightning. It led to two goals in 12 seconds by Ruslan Fedotenko and Alex Frolov midway through the period to put the Rangers ahead 2-1.
But St. Louis picked off another pass, this one by Dan Girardi deep in the Rangers zone, and set up the 27th goal of the season for Steven Stamkos to tie the score at 2-2 with 1:06 left in the period.
It stayed that way until there was 5:18 left in the second period and Vincent Lecavalier ended an 11-game goal drought with a neat deflection from in tight that found the top left corner of the net. It was just his fourth goal in 19 games -- he missed time with a broken hand -- but it could be a sign that he's finding his scoring touch.
"It's great, because he's been getting the most scoring chances anyone has had the last five games," Boucher said. "To me it's just the result of that process of hard work and sticking with the process."
As has been the case all season, the Rangers didn't give up. Their persistence paid off when Derek Stepan beat Ellis with a nifty move that resulted in Stepan scoring from behind the goal line with 8:42 left in regulation to tie the score.
The effort didn't lead to a victory, but it earned the Rangers a point that might've slipped away last season.
"I think we grind," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, whose team played without Marian Gaborik (groin) and Ryan Callahan (broken hand). "We have some major guys out of the lineup. It is a team that continues to play, continues to grind. I have a lot of respect for the guys because we didn't get frustrated."
Sometimes you have to just tip your cap to the opposition, especially when it's a shootout master like Malone stepping up in the 11th round. He's now 2-for-4 in shootouts in his career, so maybe it's time he was moved up in the pecking order?
"I like the 11 spot," said a smiling Malone. "Maybe not as much pressure back there."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo