RALEIGH, N.C. — Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said that because Steve Downie has been one of the team's best players the past couple of weeks, the right wing has earned more playing time and a spot on the top line.
It's not just Downie's career-high offensive numbers but also the way he forechecks, plays in front of the net and is one of the first on the ice before practice.
"And when you do that," Tocchet said, "Things pay off."
It certainly did Monday, with Downie scoring the winning goal midway through the third period to cap off a resilient 3-2 victory over last-place Carolina at the RBC Center. It was the Lightning's first road win over the Hurricanes since Nov. 8, 2007 — a span of eight games — and it was a big one. The victory snapped Tampa Bay's two-game losing streak and keeps it four points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"There are big games coming up," Tocchet said. "And when you lose a couple, they get bigger and bigger."
In this win, some of the Lightning's top players came up big. There was Ryan Malone, who started the scoring with his 20th goal, a nifty backhand of a rebound in the first period. There was captain Vinny Lecavalier, who gave his team the momentum back late in the second period with a power-play goal, which came just two minutes after Carolina had tied it.
And there was Marty St. Louis, who capped off his strong night with a spectacular play to set up Downie's winner, racing through the neutral zone and behind the Hurricanes defense before backhanding a pass right to a trailing Downie in the left circle.
St. Louis said once he cut wide in the Carolina zone, he knew Downie's route, and Downie said he didn't have to do much. "(The pass) hit my stick," he said. "It was great."
"An outstanding play (by St. Louis)," Tocchet said.
Not to be forgotten was an impressive bounce-back performance by goalie Antero Niittymaki. The goalie was coming off a rough Saturday loss in which he was pulled after giving up five goals on 18 shots. But Monday he came through with 20 saves, holding off the Hurricanes' early first-period flurry.
"The last few games, with the first shot going in, I was kind of hoping to make the first save and get some kind of momentum again," Niittymaki said. "I survived the first five minutes and tried to build from that, and I felt better and better as the game went on."
And unlike Thursday's loss to the Panthers, when Tampa Bay (19-19-10) blew a third-period lead, the Lightning continued to put on the pressure and, as St. Louis said, "fight through the up and downs of the game."
Said Niittymaki: "They tied it in the third, and we didn't panic."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Malone 20 (Foster, Veilleux), 11:07. Penalties—Cullen, Car (high-sticking), 11:47; Tanguay, TB (tripping), 17:14.
Second Period—2, Carolina, Cullen 9 (Whitney, Staal), 16:28. 3, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 12 (Meszaros, Halpern), 18:55 (pp). Penalties—Downie, TB (tripping), :28; Szczechura, TB (hooking), 9:52; Wallin, Car (interference), 18:09.
Third Period—4, Carolina, LaRose 2 (Gleason), 4:07. 5, Tampa Bay, Downie 11 (St. Louis, Smaby), 9:11. Penalties—St. Louis, TB (goaltender interference), 6:35. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 7-14-11—32. Carolina 7-9-6—22. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; Carolina 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 9-8-4 (22 shots-20 saves). Carolina, C.Ward 9-18-5 (32-29). A—16,031 (18,680). T—2:13.