TAMPA — The animated celebration in front of the Lightning bench Saturday night was more than just recognition of the team's first win of the season.
That Ryan Malone with 16 seconds left had solidified the 5-2 outcome over the Hurricanes at the St. Pete Times Forum with an empty-net goal that capped his hat trick made it so much sweeter.
"He's one of our leaders," center Steven Stamkos said. "He does the dirty work that goes unnoticed."
The left wing could not have picked a better time to hoist the team on his shoulders.
His goal with 9:14 left in the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and began a three-goal outburst for Tampa Bay (1-1-2), which, with a 39-26 shot advantage, broke a 12-game winless streak going back to last season and an eight-game winless streak against Carolina.
Add Malone's five shots on goal and four hits with a plus-3, and you understand why coach Rick Tocchet said the Pittsburgh native can be a key to the season.
"If he's committed like he is this year to be that consistent leader, I would push for him for the U.S. Olympic team," Tocchet said. "He's that good. His thing is commitment to the team and himself, and he's been right on."
"It's all about being a team guy," Malone said. "Next game it will be someone else's turn to step up."
Several did against Carolina.
Goaltender Antero Niittymaki, in his first start of the season, made 24 saves, including one on Eric Staal's short-handed breakaway to preserve a 3-2 lead. Steve Downie's power-play goal with seven minutes left made it 4-2.
Right wing Marty St. Louis and defenseman Mattias Ohlund had two assists each, and defenseman Paul Ranger combined with Malone on goals 15 seconds apart for a 2-1 lead in the second period.
But it was Malone, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, who set the pace.
"He's playing his game right now," St. Louis said. "He's physical. He's at the net. He's winning battles, and he's putting himself in positions where he can be successful."
Playing on a line with St. Louis and Stamkos hasn't hurt. St. Louis' pass that set up Malone's winner from the slot was so quick and unexpected, goalie Cam Ward had no time to react.
"An unreal pass by Marty," said Malone, who has a team-high four goals. "I think he had all their guys looking at him, and he just threw it back to me; a privilege to play with a guy like that."
Considering the way his teammates reacted to his hat trick, the feeling is mutual.
First Period—None. Penalties—Ranger, TB (holding), 4:14; Alberts, Car (holding), 11:30; Brind'Amour, Car (holding stick), 15:45; Tampa Bay bench, served by Downie (too many men), 18:08.
Second Period—1, Carolina, Staal 2 (Whitney, Cullen), 12:42 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Ranger 1 (Lecavalier, Veilleux), 13:24. 3, Tampa Bay, Malone 2 (Ohlund, St. Louis), 13:39. 4, Carolina, Brind'Amour 2 (Samsonov, Jokinen), 17:28 (pp). Penalties—Harrison, Car (interference, unsportsmanlike conduct), 3:02; Konopka, TB (unsportsmanlike conduct), 3:02; Yelle, Car (tripping), 9:04; Krajicek, TB (interference), 12:23; Stamkos, TB (slashing), 15:55.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Malone 3 (St. Louis, Ranger), 10:46. 6, Tampa Bay, Downie 1 (Meszaros, Ohlund), 13:00 (pp). 7, Tampa Bay, Malone 4, 18:44 (en). Penalties—Wallin, Car (slashing), 1:09; Jokinen, Car (tripping), 11:03; Hedman, TB (holding), 14:31. Shots on Goal—Carolina 9-7-10—26. Tampa Bay 17-11-11—39. Power-play opportunities—Carolina 2 of 5; Tampa Bay 1 of 6. Goalies—Carolina, C.Ward 2-3-0 (38 shots-34 saves). Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 1-0-0 (26-24). A—14,212 (19,758).