RALEIGH, N.C. — Tyler Johnson finally scored his first goal of the season Sunday night. It was fittingly not a no-doubter, his trademark short-side wrist shot banking in off the back bar.
But as teammates engulfed Johnson in the corner for a much-overdue celebration, the All-Star let out 13 games of frustration.
"It's about (expletive) time," Johnson said, smiling.
Excuse the expletive, but it emphasized how happy he and the Lightning felt after snapping a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win over the Hurricanes in front of an announced crowd of 9,081 at PNC Arena. In winning, Tampa Bay (6-5-2) began to look like itself again, showing the blend of skill and will that sparked its run to the Stanley Cup final last season.
At last, what had been a depressingly quiet dressing room had some spunk, and funk, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' Downtown blaring in the background.
"You could feel our swag coming back during the game," coach Jon Cooper said. "It was really good to see. We kind of lost that a little bit in the last week and a half."
Captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning didn't cheat to get a win, it earned it. More than losing four straight, the Lightning had lost its identity. Its puzzling scoring slump — two goals during that stretch — was magnified by an embarrassing drop in compete level. But after squeezing its sticks too tightly — Cooper said it was feeling like the net had gone "from 6-by-4 to a 2-by-2" — the Lightning broke out.
With his team down 1-0 after the first period and sensing "stale" play, Cooper once again switched up the lines, taking Ondrej Palat off the Triplets and putting him alongside Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan. And on the first shift of the second period, that line scored, Palat making it happen by forcing a turnover in the offensive zone and feeding Callahan for the Lightning's first 5-on-5 goal since Oct. 23 in Winnipeg, spanning more than 290 minutes.
Cooper made it clear everyone knew how long it had been. "It's almost like it popped the balloon," he said.
Said Stamkos: "That set the tone for our game and restored some confidence that if we do play that way, we see the results."
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy gave Tampa Bay a chance, sharp in his much-anticipated season debut after missing the first month of the season following vascular surgery for a blood clot. And Stamkos put the Lightning ahead for good with a minute left in the second on a power-play goal, his sixth goal of the season, snapping a five-game drought.
Wing J.T. Brown — playing miles away from where his father, Ted, starred as running back for N.C. State — scored four minutes into the third. And Johnson then added his first, the Lightning bench exploding so much Cooper wished there had been a microphone. "It was nice that one actually went in," Johnson said.
Tampa Bay needed every goal. Carolina scored twice in the final five minutes, including Jordan Staal's 6-on-5 tally with .1 second left. "That (stunk)," Vasilevskiy said. "I was angry. But finally we're winners. That's most important."
First—1, Car, E.Staal 4 (Versteeg, Rask), 15:07 (pp). Penalties—Versteeg, Car (hooking), 11:57; Sustr, TB (hold stick), 14:42; Malone, Car (hook), 17:35.
Second—2, TB, Callahan 4 (Palat), :38. 3, TB, Stamkos 6 (Kucherov, Stralman), 18:54 (pp). Penalties—Pesce, Car (high-sticking), 14:36; Hanifin, Car (high-sticking), 17:54.
Third—4, TB, J.Brown 2 (Filppula), 4:07. 5, TB, Johnson 1 (Kucherov, Sustr), 9:16. 6, Car, Versteeg 2 (Rask), 15:25. 7, Car, J.Staal 1 (Rask, Versteeg), 19:59. Penalties—Kucherov, TB (hold stick), 1:43. SOG—TB 10-14-7—31. Car 6-11-18—35. PP opportunities—TB 1 of 4; Car 1 of 2. Goalies—TB, Vasilevskiy 1-0-0 (35 shots-32 saves). Car, Ward 4-5-0 (31-27).