CALGARY, Alberta — Now this is the Lightning team many have been expecting for, what, two months now?
Something clicked for it Wednesday night in Calgary, a 6-3 win it hopes can be galvanizing. The Lightning entered this telling three-game trip to Western Canada reeling, having lost seven of eight. But despite playing without leading scorer Nikita Kucherov (lower-body injury), Tampa Bay found a way to snap the red-hot Flames' six-game winning streak.
"When you lose eight out of 10 games, there has to be desperation," said wing Alex Killorn, who had two goals, including an empty-netter. "I think coach has done a good job of keeping us somewhat loose. But everyone knows how important these games are. You see yourself in the standings keep falling. To get right back on track, this is a good step in the right direction."It wasn't easy. The Flames pulled within two five minutes into the third with two goals in 21 seconds. But Tampa Bay (15-13-2) didn't cave, completing one of its better performances, especially on the road.
And it's an effort it will have to replicate if it wants to get back in the playoff race. The win moved the Lightning three points behind Bruins, losers to the Penguins on Wednesday, for third place in the Atlantic Division.
"We simplified our game is what we did," coach Jon Cooper said. "We skated. We had gotten into bad habit of trying to place the puck in the net, thinking there's always a better play to be made. But (Wednesday) we shot the puck, we played all three zones as a five. We were skating. When we're doing that, especially with some of the guys we have on our team, we can be troublesome."
Tampa Bay's five goals were more than it scored in its previous three games combined. And they came from unlikely sources, with Brian Boyle scoring two, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr their first of the season, and Alex Killorn two, his first since Nov. 23. Wing Jonathan Drouin remained a playmaking force, even if the score sheet didn't show it, continuing to step his game up. His line with Valtteri Filppula (three assists) and Boyle was dynamic.
"That's what we need," Drouin said. "Everyone chipping in."
For the most part, the Lightning played a better defensive game. It held the Flames to 11 shots through the first 30 minutes. It didn't give up many glorious scoring chances. And when Tampa Bay did, goalie Ben Bishop came through, including a save on a Sam Bennett rush in the third, a shot that would have cut the Lightning lead to one.
"Who knows what happens if that goes in?" Cooper said.
The Lightning remained short-handed. It is 5-7-1 without captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery). Kucherov, who left Tuesday's practice early, participated in Wednesday's morning skate but was scratched and was considered day-to-day. Veteran wing Ryan Callahan (lower body) missed his seventh straight game. And wing Ondrej Palat left in the second period with an undisclosed injury. Cooper didn't have an update on Kucherov or Palat, saying they'll be re-evaluated Thursday.
"It's never good as a coach to come to the rink everyday and someone else is hurt," Cooper said. The Lightning appeared to be in trouble early. Calgary scored a power-play goal two minutes in, and the Saddledome was rocking. It was the kind of moment that has rattled Tampa Bay during its recent free fall. Instead of folding, the Lightning fought back. Literally. Vladislav Namestnikov's bout with Bennett two minutes after the Flames goal was a sizable spark, his teammates said. "You saw how the game changed after that," Killorn said. Boyle was a big reason why. Boyle, one of the dressing room's strongest voices in the absence of Stamkos and Callahan, let his play do the talking. His power-play goal, on a redirection of a Victor Hedman point shot, tied the score at 1 midway through the first. "That settled us down," Cooper said.
Boyle scored again three minutes later on a beautiful give-and-go with Filppula for a 2-1 led, and the Lightning kept pushing. Tampa Bay maintained consistent energy the whole game, with very few dips. With a 4-1 lead, the Lightning started the third period strong, with Killorn scoring a short-handed goal to make it 5-1.
That's when it got interesting. The Flames' T.J. Brodie cut the Lightning's lead to 5-2 four minutes into the third on a shot from the point. Then, about 20 seconds later, Micheal Ferland finished a 2-on-1 to make it a two-goal game. The building came alive again.
But the Lightning held on and got an empty-netter from Killorn. It turned its season around on a Western Canada trip in January last season. And Tampa Bay hopes it can do that again, continuing this trip Friday in Vancouver, followed by a game against Connor McDavid and the Oilers on Saturday.
The Lightning still has a long ways to go. But Wednesday was a promising start.
"All in all," Boyle said. "We're pretty satisfied."