TAMPA — Backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki is making it tough for the Lightning to put him back on the bench.
Niittymaki, making his second straight start, came through with several spectacular saves Monday night against the Panthers, with one sparking the Lightning's go-ahead goal in a 3-2 come-from-behind victory in front of an announced 14,126 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Tampa Bay (2-1-2) has won two straight for the first time since mid March, taking advantage of another strong third-period flurry. Make no mistake: Mike Smith is the Lightning's No. 1 goalie, but Niittymaki was the No. 1 star Monday night.
Niittymaki "was huge," Steven Stamkos said. "It was definitely not one of our better games, and he really bailed us out. And that's what great goaltenders do. And he did that for us (Monday night). He was great."
Niittymaki had 31 saves, including several on Panthers odd-man rushes; he even picked up the assist on the winner. With less than seven minutes left, Niittymaki made a save on a breakaway by David Booth. Stamkos picked up the rebound and went the length of the ice, ripping a shot through Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun. The puck trickled off the post, but Ryan Malone crashed the net and tapped in the rebound. "I was lucky enough; I got the garbage there," he said.
Before making the rare end-to-end rush, Stamkos said, he looked back and saw three Panthers standing still near the red line, so he decided to go for it.
"It was just kind of an instinct play, and obviously a great save by Nitty," Stamkos said. "He deserves all the credit on that one."
Niittymaki was tested early, having to stop Booth on a first-period breakaway, an experience he drew on when he came in alone in the third period.
"He tried to deke-backhand the first time, so I was kind of guessing he might shoot — and he did," Niittymaki said. "So I think I had a little advantage there."
The Lightning didn't play its best hockey, being a little too careless with the puck, which is partly why Niittymaki faced so many odd-man rushes.
Stamkos thought the team was a little too overconfident coming off a big win Saturday against Carolina, and with the Panthers having been outscored 14-4 in three straight losses, the Lightning "maybe took them a little lightly."
Florida took a 1-0 lead on a shorthanded goal in the first, taking advantage of a turnover near the Panthers blueline and scoring on a two-on-one. The Lightning's fourth line again provided a spark, as Steve Downie drew another penalty, leading to a Stamkos power-play goal late in the first.
The Panthers (1-4-0), who had the league's worst power play, regained the lead on a rebound by Nathan Horton in the second. But the Lightning bounced back with a third straight strong third period, tying the score on a power-play goal by Marty St. Louis before Malone's winner.
Said Stamkos: "There's no quit in this team."
Coach Rick Tocchet said these are "battled-tested games," one in which a team can battle for a win despite not playing its best.
"These are where you know what your team is made of," Tocchet said.
And though Niittymaki, 29, has played just two regular-season games for the Lightning since signing in the offseason, Tocchet likes what he is made of, too.
"Niittymaki was solid as can be — he was excellent," Tocchet said. "He's done everything, and more."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
First Period—1, Florida, Dvorak 1 (Kreps), 8:10 (sh). 2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 3 (St. Louis, Lecavalier), 18:32 (pp). Penalties—Hedman, TB (hooking), 3:32; Ohlund, TB (hooking), 4:44; Kulikov, Fla (tripping), 8:00; Campbell, Fla (hooking), 12:46; Walker, TB (elbowing), 14:49; Allen, Fla (slashing), 18:22.
Second Period—3, Florida, Horton 1 (Weiss, Kulikov), 6:33 (pp). Penalties—Tampa Bay bench, served by Downie (too many men), 6:02; Allen, Fla (hooking), 18:42.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, St. Louis 3 (Lecavalier, Hedman), 7:17 (pp). 5, Tampa Bay, Malone 5 (Stamkos, Niittymaki), 13:29. Penalties—Kreps, Fla (hooking), 6:57; Meszaros, TB (closing hand on puck), 17:01; Booth, Fla (boarding), 19:32. Shots on Goal—Florida 10-10-13—33. Tampa Bay 11-11-9—31. Power-play opportunities—Florida 1 of 5; Tampa Bay 2 of 6. Goalies—Florida, Vokoun 1-4-0 (31 shots-28 saves). Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 2-0-0 (33-31). A—14,126 (19,758). T—2:20. Referees—Paul Devorski, Gord Dwyer. Linesmen—Ryan Galloway, Anthony Sericolo.