TAMPA — The impact of the Lightning's sweep of a home-and-home weekend series with the Panthers was big enough: It pulled them within four points of the Southeast Division leaders after a 5-1 win Saturday night.
But it was how Tampa Bay completed the feat that may mean more, especially as it hits the road this week to face two of the Western Conference's top teams, Minnesota and Detroit.
In a season in which the Lightning has been inconsistent, it appeared to find its game the past two nights, starting with Friday's 2-1 overtime win, utilizing its speed to be the relentless, yet structured team it wanted to be.
"I think guys are just starting to realize that if we do that, how good we can be," said Steven Stamkos, who had two goals for 14 on the season, two shy of league leader Phil Kessel of Toronto.
"(Florida was) on a tear, and we just took four points from them. We're not satisfied with our game, but we realized what we can do when we play our game, and we're starting to see the results."
For the third straight game, Tampa Bay (11-9-2) set the tone with a strong first period filled with ferocious, fast forechecking.
Marty St. Louis started the scoring with his 300th goal in a Lightning uniform, redirecting a nice cross-crease, backhand pass from Brett Connolly. Tampa Bay broke open the game with a three-goal second, including a highlight-reel rush and backhand by center Tom Pyatt.
Pyatt made a crafty move of passing the puck to himself off the boards at the blue line to get past Erik Gudbranson, then lifted a shot through sprawled-out goalie Jacob Markstrom for a 2-0 lead. It was Pyatt's fifth goal of his career, and first since Dec. 2, 2010. "Any time you score in the NHL, it definitely boosts your confidence," Pyatt said. "I'm hoping I can get that second one a little sooner."
Stamkos said the Lightning is playing like a confident team. St. Louis said that after a couple of tweaks, players are more comfortable, working with less thinking and hesitation. It's showing.
"We got outplayed," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
It helped the Lightning to have sharp goaltending by backup Mathieu Garon, who picked up his second consecutive win with 24 saves. Garon's defense helped him out, including killing all six Panthers power plays.
"We played physical. Our system was pretty much perfect," said Garon, who also played Friday. "I think we executed the game plan as asked by the coaches. That's who we want to be."
As well as the Lightning played this weekend, center Nate Thompson said, "We haven't done anything yet." These games will mean something only if it can develop consistency.
But they were still satisfying.
"We played a full 60 minutes," Thompson said, "which I don't think we've done in a long time."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, St. Louis 6 (Connolly, Clark), 2:07. Penalties—Kubina, TB (tripping), 13:41; Stamkos, TB (hooking), 16:54.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Pyatt 1 (Bergeron), 3:49. 3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 13 (Purcell, Tyrell), 6:02. 4, Tampa Bay, Malone 5 (Stamkos), 10:35. Penalties—Purcell, TB (hooking), 11:04; Kulikov, Fla (holding stick), 15:05; Tampa Bay bench, served by Connolly (too many men), 16:26; Hedman, TB (hooking), 19:21.
Third Period—5, Florida, Matthias 3 (Skille), 17:43. 6, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 14, 19:01. Penalties—Fleischmann, Fla (hooking), 8:19; Kubina, TB (interference), 10:50. Shots on Goal—Florida 10-10-5—25. Tampa Bay 10-11-13—34. Power-play opportunities—Florida 0 of 6; Tampa Bay 0 of 2. Goalies—Florida, Markstrom 2-3-1 (34 shots-29 saves). Tampa Bay, Garon 5-3-1 (25-24).