Two games. Two wins. Back in Tampa.
The Tampa Bay Lightning flew to New Jersey on Monday with a big test ahead of them. The Devils are the top team in the Eastern Conference and are a measure of the Bolts, who were still trying to shake off the poor play that plagued them during a five-game losing streak just two weeks earlier.
Also, Tampa Bay has struggled on the road this season, so this was an opportunity for the Lightning to get things back on track. They did just that with a 4-1 win on Tuesday and a 4-3 penalty shootout win on Thursday.
With many friends and family in the crowd, the New Jersey native Ross Colton scored the opening goal just 1:09 into the contest when Mikhail Sergachev took a shot from the point that deflected off Colton’s knee and past Akira Schmidt for his 16th goal of the season.
After going into the first intermission with a 1-0 lead, the Lightning found themselves in a tie game when Tomas Tatar scored his 16th goal of the year at 8:59 of the central frame.
As the teams traded blows, New Jersey or Tampa Bay would seize the momentum Steven Stamkos was whistled for slashing and Eric Cernak was called for tripping, both at 15:51 of the second, giving the Devils 5-on-3 over the full two minutes.
The Bolts’ penalty kill rose to the challenge, allowing just three shots on goal and going 5-for-3 unscathed. As for momentum, the Lightning had it, and they took advantage of it immediately.
After Cernak and Stamkos exited the penalty box, Cernak scooped up the puck in the defensive zone and skated all the way to the New Jersey end before picking up the loose puck behind the Devils’ net and making a pass off the boards for Pierre-Edouard Belmare.
Video: Steven Stamkos on bolt durability
Belmar then made a beautiful backhand pass to Stamkos, who was open in the slot, and scored his 28th goal of the year in the top right corner just 20 seconds into his penalty.
Taking a 2-1 lead into the third period, the Lightning found themselves tied again when Timo Meier scored with 10:19 left in regulation.
With Jonas Siegenthaler in the penalty box for interference, the Bolts regained the lead at 15:13 of the third. When Nikita Kucherov sent a slick backhand pass to the point for Sergachev, he put the puck on a baking sheet for Stamkos, who drilled his patented one-timer into the far post to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead with 4:47 remaining.
After missing the previous game with a lower-body injury, Stamkos looked terrific Thursday night with two goals and an assist. Not only did he look better, but he felt much better.
“I probably forced that game against Winnipeg that night,” Stamkos said. “I probably should have left it.
“It’s the time of year that obviously, if it’s a playoff game, you want to fight through some things, but you want to feel as good as possible at the end of the stretch.
“I think it was probably the smart decision not to play that night. Take a few days of treatment and a day off, then skate yesterday. I felt 10 times better tonight than I did against Winnipeg the other night, so it was worth it.”
As Tampa Bay looked to close out the game, Nick Paul was sent to the penalty box for tripping and New Jersey took out Schmidt for a 6-on-4 advantage before Meyer buried his second goal of the night to force overtime.
After no goals were scored in the extra frame, Ross Colton and Alex Killorn found twine in the skirmish and Andrey Vasilevsky stopped two of three shots to earn the Lightning’s second point.
“We knew coming into this kind of back-to-back almost here, we were playing a really good team and it was going to be a good test,” Stamkos said. “We wanted to see where we are against a team that is having a great year.
“Two at their home rink. We didn’t play very well away from home. We felt like our game was getting a little bit better the last week and a half here.
“Those two games, I think, were a byproduct of us playing the way we want to in order to get to the playoffs.”
Video: John Cooper | After game 3.16.23
Somehow there are only 13 games left in the regular season. Tampa Bay will play back-to-back games for the fourth straight weekend when it takes on the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and New Jersey again on Sunday.
With the playoffs right around the corner, the Bolts are starting to find their game, but they know they can’t rest on their laurels after two big wins.
“We can’t just sit here and say, ‘Well, we got two in New Jersey,’ and then go home and think all our problems are solved,” Lightning head coach John Cooper said. “No, we need to build on what we did here and then continue that when we get back.”
After a 9-5 loss to the Florida Panthers on Thursday, Montreal will certainly have some motivation coming to AMALIE Arena on Saturday night. New Jersey will certainly look to win the season series on Sunday as well. The Lightning will need to continue to take those steps in the right direction as the postseason approaches.
“The guys really stepped up the last week,” Stamkos said. “We are starting to get results. We’re playing the way we want to play towards the end of the season. We kind of got rid of him for a bit.”