Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Win vs. Blackhawks: momentum builder or blip for Lightning?

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You've seen this type of magic from Tyler Johnson before.

Well, not exactly two goals in 30 seconds. That's a feat the Lightning center accomplished Tuesday in a 5-2 come-from-behind win over Chicago.

"I don't think that's happened before," Johnson said. "Not as a pro."

Though few Lightning players have scored as many clutch goals as Johnson the past few years, that type of game-breaking performance has been fleeting for the team this year. But Johnson's two-goal game couldn't have come at a better time as the Lightning fights for its playoff life.

"(Johnson) puts a lot of pressure on himself to perform," veteran center Brian Boyle said. "And this could have been the biggest game of the year. It probably was. And he led the way."

Tuesday's win was significant, with Tampa Bay (22-22-5) handing the Blackhawks their first regulation loss in three seasons when leading after two periods. It was symbolic, with the Lightning reminding itself in a morning meeting that it was in the same United Center two years ago playing for the Stanley Cup.

But it means little if Johnson and Tampa Bay can't follow up with a win tonight in Sunrise against the Panthers. The Lightning has won back-to-back games just once in the past two months (Dec. 20-22), one reason it hasn't been able to climb in the standings. And Tampa Bay, which is tied with five other teams in the Eastern Conference with 49 points, is chasing the Panthers (50).

The Lightning and Panthers, expected to battle for the Atlantic Division title, both are surprisingly out of a playoff spot for similar reasons. Both have had several injuries, and neither has been consistent, with the healthy core players underperforming.

That's why the Lightning hopes Tuesday is a sign of things to come. Wing Alex Killorn had one of his better games, from his unsung backcheck on a Patrick Kane rush to his hustle to set up both Johnson goals.

"He made it easy for me," Johnson said.

Andrei Vasilevskiy had an impressive 34-save performance, snapping a six-start losing streak. Defenseman Victor Hedman helped corral Kane's top line. Boyle had a goal and an assist, his faceoff win over star Chicago center Jonathan Toews enabling the tying goal.

Then there was Johnson, who matched his goal total from the past 12 games combined. This is what many had hoped for when Johnson entered this season saying he was stronger than ever, no longer limited by a wrist injury that zapped him last year. With Stamkos hurt since mid November, the spotlight has shined on Johnson, who can be a restricted free agent in the summer. Johnson is still an uncharacteristic minus-11, worst on the team. His 29 points in 49 games aren't that much more than Stamkos (20) had in 17 before he was hurt.

But if Johnson keeps producing like he did Tuesday, it would go a long way toward giving the Lightning a chance to see more of his postseason heroics.

"Any time you get rewarded (with goals), that is big," Johnson said. "But you don't really focus on it too much. You focus on team wins, for us to contribute to get a team win. That's all that matters. We need everything we can get right now."

Including a win tonight in Sunrise.

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