TAMPA — The Lightning began Saturday honoring a big part of its past, unveiling a statue of founder Phil Esposito outside of the newly renamed Tampa Bay Times Forum.
And star center Steven Stamkos ended the calendar year by coming oh-so-close to accomplishing something that hasn't been done since the franchise's first game.
Stamkos racked up a hat trick in a 5-2 win over the Hurricanes in front of a New Year's Eve crowd of 19,204. He had a chance to join Chris Kontos (Oct. 7, 1992) as the only Lightning players to score four goals in a game, but Carolina goalie Cam Ward stopped a late breakaway.
"That was icing on the cake," Stamkos said. "I think I'm still trying to get over how I missed that breakaway. I'm sure I'll be able to get over that tonight."
Stamkos has 10 goals over his past eight games and a league-leading 26 on the season.
"He's pretty hot," Marty St. Louis said. "He's flying."
So is the Lightning (17-17-3), which is at .500 for the first time since Nov. 30 after sweeping a three-game homestand. It capped it with "that 60-minute, consistent, relentless effort on both sides of the ice that we were waiting for," coach Guy Boucher said.
Tampa Bay set the tone with one of its better first periods in recent memory. However, the Hurricanes, who entered with the third-worst power play in the league, scored two with the man advantage to take a 2-1 lead.
Stamkos brought the Lightning back with back-to-back goals, a highlight-reel one in the second in which he split two Hurricanes then a familiar one in the third, a one-timer from the left circle on a power play. Stamkos' third was extra special as St. Louis picked up his 500th career assist.
"He'll remember that forever," Stamkos said. "And I'll remember that forever."
Teddy Purcell scored 22 seconds later, and Steve Downie added another insurance goal. It seemed like everything — and every line — clicked for Tampa Bay, including Mathieu Garon making 24 saves in winning his third consecutive start.
The defense, without Victor Hedman (concussion), came through with Boucher saying, "We can't ask for more."
Boucher said he could see a complete effort building. And the Lightning needed it, entering Saturday six points out of the final playoff spot.
"We need to make a push," Downie said. "We can't wait until after the All-Star break. We have to make a push now. These points are crucial."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 24 (St. Louis, Downie), 3:22. 2, Carolina, Faulk 2 (Bowman, E.Staal), 16:12 (pp). Penalties—Purcell, TB (hooking), 16:00.
Second Period—3, Carolina, Harrison 3 (E.Staal, McBain), 4:29 (pp). 4, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 25 (St. Louis, Downie), 8:17. Penalties—Clark, TB (tripping), 1:09; St. Louis, TB (holding), 3:08; Jokinen, Car (slashing), 9:04; LaRose, Car (hooking), 19:57.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 26 (St. Louis, Malone), :43 (pp). 6, Tampa Bay, Purcell 7 (Malone, Clark), 1:05. 7, Tampa Bay, Downie 6 (Malone, Pyatt), 6:51. Penalties—Brent, Car (roughing), 7:52; Ward, Car, served by Nodl (roughing), 7:52; Lecavalier, TB (roughing), 7:52; Moore, TB (goaltender interference), 7:52; Stamkos, TB (hooking), 8:31; Ponikarovsky, Car (boarding), 14:18. Shots on Goal—Carolina 7-11-8—26. Tampa Bay 13-10-9—32. Power-play opportunities—Carolina 2 of 4; Tampa Bay 1 of 3. Goalies—Carolina, Ward 13-15-5 (32 shots-27 saves). Tampa Bay, Garon 11-9-2 (26-24). A—19,204 (19,204).