TAMPA -- The good news for the Tampa Bay Lightning was that they beat the Florida Panthers 5-4 on Thursday night. The better news is that Steven Stamkos scored the winning goal.
Stamkos scored his first goal since his return a week earlier from a broken right leg when he beat Dan Ellis 10:47 into the third period to make it 5-2. It was Stamkos' 15th goal of the season, but his first since missing 45 games after breaking his right tibia against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11
It was a classic Stamkos goal; he set up in the lower left circle and one-timed a feed from Valtteri Filppula before the goaltender could react.
"You just knew it was time for him to break out at some point, and that was classic Stamkos right there," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Stamkos, who also had an assist, was happy and relieved to see the red light go on.
"It's nice confidence-wise to see one go in," Stamkos said. "It's reassuring the see the hard work you put in paid off."
With the win, the Lightning swept the four-game series from their in-state rivals and jumped past the Montreal Canadiens into third place in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay (35-24-7) has picked up points in its past three games.
The Lightning appeared to have the game well in hand until the Panthers scored twice in 38 seconds. Scottie Upshall finished off a 2-on-1 with Nick Bjugstad at 18:55 to make it 5-3. Ellis was lifted for an extra attacker, and newcomer Brandon Pirri scored his eighth goal of the season with 27 seconds remaining.
Ben Bishop stopped 23 shots for his 30th victory of the season.
Tampa Bay pulled away from a 2-2 tie by scoring twice in the second period, when the Lightning outshot the Panthers 13-5.
Newcomer Ryan Callahan put the Lightning ahead to stay at 12:04 with his 12th goal of the season and first since coming to Tampa Bay from the New York Rangers on March 5 at the NHL Trade Deadline. He tapped in a cross-crease pass from Ondrej Palat after fighting off a checker.
"I love that kid," Cooper said. "He just works so hard. That's what he does; he lives there [in the crease]."
Tyler Johnson made it 4-2 at 18:53. His shot from the corner near the goal line banked off Florida defenseman Ed Jovanovski and went past Ellis for his 21st goal of the season and fourth in five games.
Each team scored twice in a free-flowing first period.
Tampa Bay had not allowed a power-play goal in its past six home games, but that streak came to an end 1:44 after the opening faceoff when Tomas Fleischmann connected while Lightning forward Tom Pyatt was off for hooking. Dmitry Kulikov got the puck to Fleischmann in the low slot, and Fleischmann took a step to his left and beat Bishop. Bjugstad also had an assist, extending his assist streak to four games.
Sami Salo tied the game at 5:38 with his third of the season, a blast from the right point that Ellis likely never saw. Filppula was credited with the first of his three assists when he won the faceoff back to Salo.
"Right off the bat I thought our energy was good," Florida coach Peter Horachek said. "We had the jump and a lot of things positive were happening for us. We were going in the right direction. They got a faceoff play and the goalie didn't see that at all."
Florida went back in front 12 seconds later when rookie Quinton Howden scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game this season, beating Bishop with a wrister from the left circle.
Tampa Bay got even again at 8:18 when Michael Kostka's blast from the high slot eluded traffic in front and beat Ellis. It was the third goal of the season for Kostka, but his first since joining the Lightning after coming on waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 23.
"They responded to our energy," Horachek said. "We responded and then they responded. It's 2-2 and their other goals, we have to be better in those situations."
Especially the blast by Stamkos.
"Those seam passes, we know they are there," Horachek said. "We talked about it and we scouted that. We showed it to the players and they still get that situation. He doesn't miss from there. That's his home over there. That's where he makes his living, right off that dot down there. We got to eliminate some of those little things."
Ellis, making his first start in goal since being acquired by the Panthers for Tim Thomas in a deadline trade with the Dallas Stars, stopped 23 shots.
Cooper, clearly relieved after the harrowing ending, feels his team is back on the right track.
"It's two more points than we had and we're pretty excited about it," Cooper said. "Wins are paramount, but you have to munch points, and we've munched four out of a possible six in the last three games. I like where we are headed."
Stamkos also likes the direction of the team.
"Everyone in this room is happy," Stamkos said. "For 59 minutes we stuck to the game plan."