It was fast. It was entertaining. It was chippy. It was physical. It was downright nasty at times. And thanks to Ondrej Palat, it was a game that turned around from an early deficit into a massive regulation victory for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Palat tipped in a shot by Andrej Sustr with 2:23 remaining in the third period for his 14th goal of the season as the Lightning (32-26-9) rallied from a 2-0 first period hole to beat their in-state rivals, the Florida Panthers (29-27-11). The victory put the Lightning just three points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and five points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay is also three points ahead of Philadelphia and four ahead of Florida. Nikita Kucherov chipped in with his 31st goal of the season, a new career-high, while Yanni Gourde scored shorthanded to notch his first career NHL goal. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 32 of 34 shots to get his 16th win in net this season. He is now 5-0-1 since Tampa Bay traded Ben Bishop. His counterpart, James Reimer, stopped 31 of 34 shots, while Jaromir Jagr and Mark Pysyk scored Florida’s goals and Aleksander Barkov notched a pair of assists for the Panthers.
The opening period was an entertaining show of chippy, desperate hockey from two teams fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, as the Lightning and Panthers each traded some quality chances throughout the opening 15 minutes, with a few scrums and a fight between JT Brown and Alex Petrovic thrown in for good measure. Both Vasilevskiy and Reimer were on top of their games early on, but it was the Panthers who would get on the board first with 3:28 left in the period. Just seconds after a Florida power play came to an end, the Panthers’ Jonathan Marchessault rifled a shot on net that Vasilevskiy knocked aside. The puck came to Barkov, who fired a shot of his own that Vasilevskiy thought he had control of. But the puck squirted through and bounced to Jagr, who tucked the puck into the net for his 14th goal of the season to make it 1-0. Marchessault and Barkov would notch the assists.
Florida would extend the lead to 2-0 after a Braydon Coburn turnover led to the Panthers keeping the puck in Tampa Bay’s zone. Mark Pysyk let a shot loose from the point that deflected off a player in front and eluded Vasilevskiy for his fourth of the season with just under 47 seconds left in the period. Reilly Smith and Barkov assisted on the goal, as the crowd at Amalie Arena was very quiet heading into the intermission. Florida held the lead on the scoreboard and in shots on goal, maintaining a 13-12 edge in that department.
What was a chippy first period erupted into an even more physical and angry contest in the second period. A hit by Gabriel Dumont on Florida’s Aaron Ekblad led to Keith Yandle dropping the gloves with Dumont just under three minutes into the middle stanza. Ekblad turned his back to play the puck as Dumont was coming, and the hit appeared to be high, as Ekblad’s head struck the glass. He would not return to the game. Dumont didn’t get a penalty for the hit, but Yandle received an extra two-minute minor for roughing, and the Lightning would make them pay for it on the ensuing power play. Victor Hedman fired a perfect pass to Kucherov in his favorite spot from the right circle, and Kucherov blasted one of his patented one-timers top shelf past Reimer to cut the Panthers’ lead to 2-1 at the 3:43 mark. A few minutes later, the Lightning’s Anton Stralman caught the Panthers’ Dennis Malgin with a perfect hip check near the Panthers’ bench. Malgin went airborne, with his head hitting the curved portion of the glass. The hit was clean, but it set off a huge melee in the Lightning’s zone, with Petrovic getting hit with a two-minute roughing minor, a 10-minute misconduct, and a game misconduct.
Later in the period, with the Lightning’s Luke Witkowski in the box for cross-checking, the Lightning’s penalty killing unit would get in on the fun, with Gourde tying the game with an unassisted goal at the 10:11 mark. Gourde stole the puck and raced down the ice with Vincent Trocheck hounding him the entire way. Gourde broke in and slipped the puck under Reimer for a shorthanded tally that sent the Amalie Arena crowd into a frenzy and tied the game 2-2. There were a couple more scrums towards the end of the period, but the Bolts had momentum on their side heading into the second intermission, as they held a 22-19 edge in shots on goal.
During the third period, both the Bolts and Cats would settle down in terms of scrums, fisticuffs, and face washes, but the action didn’t slow down, as both teams continued to trade quality scoring chances over the final 20 minutes. It appeared as though the game would be heading into overtime, until Palat put an end to it with his clutch tally late in regulation. The officials would review it to see if the puck was knocked out of the air with a high stick, but they confirmed it was a good goal, and the Lightning came away with a massive regulation victory.
Tampa Bay will return to action on Monday night when they travel to Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Rangers at 7 pm.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1st Star: Ondrej Palat – Tallied the game-winning goal with 2:23 left and had a game-high seven shots on goal.
2nd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Finished with 32 saves on 34 shots, coming up big when the Lightning needed him. He’s now 5-0-1 since the Ben Bishop trade.
3rd Star: Yanni Gourde – Tied the game 2-2 in the second period with a huge shorthanded goal that was also the first of his NHL career.
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