SUNRISE — Say this for the Lightning, it rarely goes out quietly at the BankAtlantic Center.
For the third consecutive meeting at Florida, Tampa Bay trailed entering the third period but battled to force overtime. And center Steven Stamkos capped off the comeback Friday night with the winner, a one-timer from the left circle midway through the extra session to give the Lightning a much-needed 2-1 victory over the Panthers.
Stamkos' goal came on the power play — the Lightning's second all night — and helped snap Florida's three-game winning streak.
"I closed my eyes and shot that one as hard as I could," Stamkos said. "It was nice to see that one go in and get those two points."
Florida has been one of the league's biggest surprises, going from last in the Eastern Conference last season to the top of the Southeast Division this year. With the Lightning (10-9-2) entering Friday trailing the Panthers by seven points, it could ill afford to leave a home-and-home series empty-handed.
Considering Friday was the seventh time in the past 10 meetings a game between the teams went to overtime, fans for tonight's rematch at the St. Pete Times Forum should plan for a long night.
"Our identity is close games, too," Stamkos said. "We just happen to have them a lot against those guys."
Coach Guy Boucher implored his team to get off to a fast start, something it has struggled with on the road this year. He joked he must have yelled "Speed! Speed!" 3,000 times, and the Lightning responded with a relentless forecheck, outshooting the Panthers 7-1 in the first 10 minutes (and 31-24 for the game).
"We had our speed right away," Boucher said. "And when we've got our speed, we're dangerous."
Though the Lightning failed to cash in on many early chances, the Panthers struck first with about eight minutes left in the second. Tomas Fleischmann scored on a two-on-one sparked from a blocked shot at the Florida blue line.
Goalie Mathieu Garon played well, making 23 saves and keeping the Lightning in it until Vinny Lecavalier's tying goal midway through the third.
"(Garon) was definitely a star for us," Stamkos said.
On Lecavalier's goal, moments after the Panthers' Kris Versteeg hit the post, Marty St. Louis took advantage of a Florida turnover and set up Lecavalier, who knocked in a rebound of his shot for his 10th goal of the year. That set the stage for Stamkos' winner, which came off a great fake and pass by St. Louis.
"We needed our top guys to come up big, and Vinny scores the goal, 'Stammer' scores the goal and Marty set up everybody," Boucher said. "That's what we've got."
Whether it takes more than 60 minutes or not.
First Period—None. Penalties—Brewer, TB (delay of game), 11:55; Clark, TB (high-sticking), 16:48.
Second Period—1, Florida, Fleischmann 10 (Weiss), 12:38. Penalties—None.
Third Period—2, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 10 (St. Louis), 8:59. Penalties—Clark, TB (interference), 6:47; Repik, Fla (goaltender interference), 13:01; Stamkos, TB (interference), 13:16.
Overtime—3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 12 (St. Louis, Bergeron), 2:29 (pp). Penalties—Kulikov, Fla (interference), :48. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 7-13-8-3—31. Florida 5-13-6-0—24. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; Florida 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Garon 4-3-1 (24 shots-23 saves). Florida, Theodore 9-4-3 (31-29).