TAMPA — Tyler Johnson said he had never been as nervous as he was during his NHL debut Thursday, but he came to a calming conclusion that made him feel "normal" Saturday night.
"I really started to realize that it's basically just a game I've been playing my whole life," Johnson said. "So I've just got to keep doing what got me here and hope that works."
What got Johnson here was his scoring ability, and that showed in the Lightning's 4-1 win over Carolina in front of an announced sellout crowd of 19,204 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Johnson, 22, racked up his first NHL goal and had an assist. And with Ondrej Palat, 21, adding a goal, it was the first time in team history two rookies picked up their initial NHL tallies in the same game.
"I've played with (Palat) for a year and a half. We're linemates and very, very close," said Johnson, who led the AHL with 32 goals when he was called up from Syracuse. "So it's awesome that we both were able to do that."
The Lightning (12-15-1) considered Saturday's game a "must-win" due to the uphill climb it must make to make the playoffs. Coach Guy Boucher said his goal was to use the chemistry of onetime Syracuse teammates Johnson, Palat and Dana Tyrell, and that line "gave us the momentum" with a furious first shift.
The Syracuse pipeline has sparked the Lightning all season, and three rookies combined for Johnson's first goal. Midway through the first period, Alex Killorn — Johnson's AHL roommate — made a no-look pass off the boards down low to Johnson, who skated in from the left circle. On a two-on-one with Cory Conacher, another rookie, Johnson was decisive, ripping a wrist shot gloveside on goalie Justin Peters.
"A lot of emotions went through me," Johnson said. "It's something I'm always going to remember."
Johnson set up Palat's goal, which came 6:35 into the second. He raced to the left corner, winning a battle with forward Adam Hall, who was claimed by the Hurricanes off waivers from Tampa Bay earlier Saturday. Johnson passed the puck to Sami Salo, whose shot from the point deflected in off Palat's skate.
"I didn't see the puck at all. I just tried to screen the goalie," he said. "I was happy it went in."
The Lightning played a strong overall game, including outshooting the Hurricanes 26-22. Goalie Mathieu Garon, in his first start in 12 days, was sharp, coming an Eric Staal breakaway goal away from a shutout. Nate Thompson scored, and his checking line set the tone for a complete defensive effort.
The win was Tampa Bay's third in 11 games and brought it within seven points of first-place Winnipeg in the Southeast Division.
"We've been playing like this 14 of our last 16 games. We just didn't get the result the other games," Boucher said. "It's good to be rewarded."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Johnson 1 (Killorn, Conacher), 10:54. Penalties—Corvo, Car (tripping), 8:45.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Palat 1 (Salo, Johnson), 6:35. 3, Tampa Bay, Thompson 6 (Crombeen, Carle), 12:55. Penalties—None.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Purcell 5 (St. Louis, Hedman), 3:54. 5, Carolina, E.Staal 13 (Semin), 6:21. Penalties—Stamkos, TB (roughing), 11:25; Tampa Bay bench, served by Palat (too many men), 14:29. Shots on Goal—Carolina 8-10-4—22. Tampa Bay 10-8-8—26. Power-play opportunities—Carolina 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Carolina, Peters 2-2-0 (26 shots-22 saves). Tampa Bay, Garon 3-7-0 (22-21). A—19,204 (19,204).