The crowd of 21,178 at the ThunderDome gasped in horror Saturday night as the puck traveled 30 feet into the open Tampa Bay Lightning net. No Hartford Whaler was in sight.
It was a routine play that turned into a fluke goal. Lightning goalie Daren Puppa, clearing the puck out of the zone, accidentally hit Chris Joseph in the skate and it ricocheted back into the goal to give Hartford a 2-1 lead in the second period.
With the way the Lightning's luck has been at home this season, it could have been a devastating way to lose.
But the Lightning, which needed this victory badly to stay in the hunt for the playoffs, got timely third-period goals from Denis Savard and Gerard Gallant to make the earlier gaffe a moot point. Tampa Bay defeated Hartford 4-2 to improve to 25-34-8 for 58 points.
The Lightning is just five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay has a chance to get closer tonight, when the two teams faceoff at 6:05 at the ThunderDome.
This was only the second victory in the Lightning's last nine home games. Tampa Bay outshot Hartford 39-23 for the game, but it was a nailbiter until Gallant put Tampa Bay ahead 3-2 with 6:46 left in the game after a scramble in front of the goal.
Hartford goalie Sean Burke kept his team in the game with outstanding saves until the end. He's been stellar all season with a 2.68 goals-against average but has received little support. The Whalers are the third-lowest scoring team in the NHL and have scored only six goals in their last five games.
Tampa Bay also has had trouble scoring this season, but some veterans and unlikely heroes have come up big on the offensive end.
Rob DiMaio, who scored Tampa Bay's first goal, has put together the first extended hot streak by a Lightning player all season, scoring his fifth goal in his last six games. That's especially remarkable considering he had just two goals in his first 28 games.
Savard, who was honored in a ceremony before the game for reaching the 1,000-game milestone last week on the road, helped tie the game at 2. Adam Creighton dug the puck out of the corner and fed Savard in front. Savard's shot was deflected in by a Hartford defenseman.
Gallant, the forgotton man for most of the season, scored his fourth of the season for the game-winner. Cole scored an insurance goal on a power play for his career-high 17th.
DiMaio notched the first goal of the game at 6:49 of the second period. Donald Dufresne, who had missed 15 of the last 16 games with a knee injury, snapped a wrist shot that was stopped by Burke. DiMaio couldn't score on the rebound of Dufresne's shot, but scored on the rebound of his own five seconds after Tampa Bay's power play expired.
Hartford tied the game at 1 on Verbeek's 32nd goal of the season. Michael Nylander set up the play from behind the net, delivering a pass just underneath Marc Bergevin. Verbeek put the puck where it was nearly impossible for Puppa to stop _ the top left-hand corner. It was just the Whalers, eighth shot on goal.
Rudy Poeschek got the crowd into the game with a bout with Marc Potvin. Poeschek raised his hands in celebration then wiped blood from the cut above his left eye.
But the deadlock was broken by the improbable goal off Joseph's skate. After two periods, Tampa Bay trailed 2-1 despite outshooting Hartford 24-15.
There was no score after a penalty-filled first period in which the Lightning outshot the Whalers 12-5.
Burke was outstanding and lucky. His best saves were on Bureau from point blank range and Savard on a wrist shot off a rebound. He was beaten twice, but Tampa Bay couldn't capitalize.
The first time, Savard stole the puck while short-handed, but clanged the puck off the right post. The second time, Mikael Andersson stole a clearing pass and Burke came out to stop him. Andersson went around Burke, but couldn't get off a shot into the open net before being dragged down by rookie defenseman Pronger.
The Whalers' best scoring chance was by Geoff Sanderson, who put on the afterburners and blew between Lightning defensemen Joe Reekie and Chris Joseph. They had a tag-team effort to stop him, both by hooking. Joseph was officially awarded the penalty and Reekie helped kill off most of the penalty.