TAMPA — Coach Jon Cooper said the Panthers deserve to be where they are, in first place in the Atlantic Division.
"And now we've got to knock them off," Cooper said.
Lately, the Lightning has been knocking everyone off.
You knew Tampa Bay was bound to make a run, and its winning streak hit a season high of five games with Sunday's 3-1 victory over the Panthers in front of 19,092 at Amalie Arena. The Lightning is in the third spot in the Atlantic, five points behind the Panthers, with the teams' fourth meeting of the season Saturday in Sunrise.
"We knew this was a big game," said goalie Ben Bishop, stellar again with 26 saves. "We kind of owed them. They had our number there the last couple (of games). It's definitely nice to beat those guys."
The Lightning (24-17-4) had lost the season's first two games with Florida, each by one goal, the Panthers scoring late in regulation in both. This one was close, too, but Tampa Bay once again found a way, from going 5-for-5 on the penalty kill to getting a rare goal from defenseman Andrej Sustr.
"I don't care what team you are in the league, you win a few in a row and you think you can win every single game," Cooper said. "And the more we've won, that's kind of how that feeling has been on the bench, and it's really helped us so far."
The Lightning's streak is largely due to finally being healthy, which allows it to have a more consistent and balanced lineup. One game after top-line center Vladislav Namestnikov's hat trick, second-line wing Nikita Kucherov racked up two goals, including an empty-netter, to give him 18 on the season. The defensemen continue to provide production, with Sustr scoring the winner, pinching in to put in a rebound.
Even Tyler Johnson, who has missed a large chunk of the season with injuries, is starting to find his game, with seven shots.
"I think the biggest thing is we're starting to play our game a little bit," Johnson said. "We're better structurally, having (a) better compete (level). That's something we've lacked at times throughout the season. Now we're trying to do it consistently, and it's getting better."
Having Bishop as a backbone helps. Bishop, the team's MVP in the first half of the season, followed up his shutout Tuesday against Colorado with another impressive performance. His biggest save might have been on a tip by wing Reilly Smith with eight minutes to go, preserving a one-goal lead.
" 'Bish' was outstanding," Cooper said, "especially when we really needed him down the stretch."
The Lightning has matched its longest regular-season winning streak since early last season (Oct. 29-Nov. 9, 2014). It put itself within striking distance of the Panthers, who have lost two straight after winning 12 in a row.
"It hasn't happened too often where both teams have been primed for a playoff spot," Cooper said. "And there's still so much hockey left to play.
"But it's just a natural geographic rivalry that if we ever ran into Florida in a playoff series, I think you'd really see something build. It's good for hockey, good for everything down here in the state of Florida, for both of our teams to be doing well."
First—None. Penalties—Filppula, TB (illegal check to head minor), 12:47.
Second—1, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 17 (Nesterov, Stralman), 4:21. 2, Tampa Bay, Sustr 2 (Garrison, Filppula), 18:30. Penalties—Sustr, TB (tripping), 1:15; Condra, TB (high-sticking), 6:49; Jagr, Fla (holding), 13:36.
Third—3, Florida, Bjugstad 8 (Jokinen), 8:06. 4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 18 (Hedman), 18:36 (en). Penalties—Pirri, Fla (holding), 2:59; Killorn, TB (tripping), 4:56; MacKenzie, Fla, major (fighting), 7:38; Paquette, TB, major (fighting), 7:38; Filppula, TB (delay of game), 11:40. Shots on Goal—Florida 3-10-14—27. Tampa Bay 5-15-12—32. Power-play opportunities—Florida 0 of 5; Tampa Bay 0 of 2. Goalies—Florida, Luongo 19-13-4 (31 shots-29 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 18-13-3 (27-26).