TAMPA — It looked like veteran wing Ryan Callahan was going to fittingly put Thursday's victory away for the Lightning.
In the final minute against the Flames, Callahan, 30, darted through the neutral zone, dodged a Calgary player at mid ice and fired a shot from the blue line into the empty net. But the goal was waived off because a teammate was offside.
"It was upsetting but a little funny he didn't get that goal," center Tyler Johnson said.
If any Lightning player deserved a goal Thursday, it was Callahan, who has been the team's best player recently heading into tonight's game against the Panthers at Amalie Arena.
Callahan doesn't have a point to show for it over the past five games, but he has set the tone with his monster all-around effort, the kind of consistency that has been elusive for the rest of the team. His on-ice leadership has stood out. It's why he's an alternate captain.
"He's kind of the straw that's stirring the drink right now," coach Jon Cooper said. "He never cheats you on effort. You wish you have a ton of guys like him. They're a rare commodity. Glad he's with us."
Said Johnson: "If you've got a team full of Callahans, you don't lose too many games."
The Lightning has lost more than anyone had expected in the first month of the season. Having lost six of eight heading into this homestand, Callahan said the Lightning needed to dig itself out of its funk with hard work. Instead of just talking the talk, Callahan has walked the walk, hoping others will follow.
"That's on our shoulders. We have to set the tone," Callahan said. "And our leadership group knows that. We have to lead by example."
Callahan, in the second season of a six-year, $34.8 million deal, would be the first to say he isn't producing like he wants. Callahan, who had 24 goals (and 54) points last season, has four goals through 18 games and is minus-5.
But the entire team isn't scoring, and Callahan has done what he has done best in his nine years in the NHL, what made him a beloved blue-collar captain for the Rangers. He has been tenacious on the forecheck, using his speed and grit. He has banged bodies in front of the net and dived in front of shots, and been a key cog on the resurgent penalty kill.
His teammates have noticed.
"When you see a guy hitting everything that moves, moving their feet 100 miles per hour, diving in front of shots headfirst, that gets you going," Johnson said. "Because the ultimate thing you can do is play for your teammates. And when you see a teammate playing the way he did, you may need to step it up."
Callahan plays a physical style that is unique on the Lightning. His 38 hits, which ranked 51st in the league entering Friday, are 14 more than his next teammates, defensemen Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison. Callahan's 15 blocked shots were 14th among the league's forwards.
"He's a very effective player when he plays like that, hard to play against," said Stralman, a teammate of Callahan's in New York. "I've seen it so many times."
Callahan, acquired from the Rangers in March 2014 in the Marty St. Louis trade, was one of New York's top penalty killers. He didn't serve in that role much last season in Tampa Bay but was added to the unit Oct. 15 after it allowed five goals in its first 12 opportunities.
Callahan said he has killed penalties his entire career. He loves it. And his impact has been undeniable. The Lightning has killed 35 of the past 39 power plays it has faced, moving up from last in the league to 15th (79.6 percent).
"He does what he does, stirs the pot, uses his tenacity and his speed," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He's been a big part of why, for the most part, our penalty kill has been a lot better."
"That's why," Johnson said, "he's wearing the 'A.' "
Contact Joe Smith at j[email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.