The crowd of 21,178 at the ThunderDome gasped in horror Saturday night as the puck traveled 30 feet into the open net of the Tampa Bay Lightning. No Hartford Whaler was in sight.
It was a routine play that turned into a fluke goal. Lightning goalie Daren Puppa, who was trying to clear the puck out of the zone, accidentally hit teammate Chris Joseph in the skate. The puck ricocheted right into the goal to give Hartford a 2-1 lead after two periods.
"We couldn't lose like that," Lightning left wing Gerard Gallant said. "Daren Puppa has bailed us out all season. We told each other, "Let's bail him out.'
The Lightning did, in a big way. Gallant, Denis Savard and Danton Cole all scored in the final period to propel Tampa Bay to a 4-2 victory and make the gaffe a moot point.
"We knew this was a big weekend for us," said left wing Rob DiMaio, who scored the other Lightning goal. "We can't bask in the glory too long because we've got another big game (tonight at 6:05 against Philadelphia)."
With only its second victory in its past nine games, Tampa Bay improved to 25-34-8 for 58 points, five behind the Flyers, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay found itself down 2-1 after two periods despite outshooting the Whalers 24-15. Lightning coach Terry Crisp said he told the players not to let the fluke goal, which was credited to Chris Pronger because he was the nearest Whaler, be the game-winner.
"Those things happen. It's life," Crisp said. "Poops felt bad. What were we going to do? Tar and feather him? We had to go out and pick it up for him."
Tampa Bay did with goals by some of its hottest players, none of whom were the team's top two scorers.
With Petr Klima out of the lineup with a separated shoulder and Brian Bradley struggling to find his scoring touch, two of the team's forgotten men, DiMaio and Gallant, and a rejuvenated Savard have come through strong in the last two weeks.
DiMaio, who has struggled through injuries earlier in the season and a lack of ice time when he did return, has produced the best scoring streak of the season. After scoring just two goals in his first 28 games, he has netted five in his past six. None of them will be saved for highlight films _ like his first-period goal against the Whalers when he whacked in his own rebound _ but they all count.
When asked if he had done something special to his stick, he said, "It's a secret." He said he's "trying to prove that he can be a good offensive player and not just a defensive player. I believe in myself and this has been a good opportunity to show what I can do. I've been playing with two quality players (Bradley and John Tucker). It's been good."
Gallant, a 10-year veteran who has been scratched a team-high 20 games, scored the game-winner when he tapped in a puck in the crease at 13:14 of the final period. Gallant has scored three goals in his past four games after scoring one in his first 38.
"It wasn't a great goal, just a tap-in, but it's nice to get the opportunity," he said. "I never doubted that I could still play. I've been in this league 10 years and I know I can still play. It's just getting the opportunity. It's great to feel a part of things again."
Savard, who looked like a toy whose batteries were about to run out a month ago, has been playing the past two weeks like he's flashed back to his heyday. He scored the game-tying goal against Hartford, a shot from the slot that bounced off a Whaler defenseman. It was his 12th goal and fourth in his past six games.
If not for the solid goaltending of Sean Burke, the 33-year-old might have had more. He put seven shots on goal and had two others clang off the post.
"I think I'm back where I was at the start of the year, maybe even better," said Savard, who was honored in a ceremony before the game for reaching the 1,000-game milestone last week at Edmonton. "My confidence is rising with every game."
Cole scored the insurance goal for his 17th of the season. "Danton's just been solid all year," Crisp said.
Tampa Bay again had a solid defensive effort. The only reason the game was close was because of Burke, who made several outstanding saves. 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 past five games.
Whaler coach Pierre Maguire was not happy with the turn of events. "We have a young team that made young mistakes," he said. "Puppa made a good save on (Pat) Verbeek was a big play."