TAMPA — When coach Jon Cooper walked into the Lightning dressing room after the second period Tuesday night, he sensed a surprisingly upbeat vibe.
Tampa Bay trailed Toronto 3-1, with a Victor Hedman goal late finally getting the Lightning on the board. But after several leaders spoke up at intermission, Cooper said it felt like the Lightning was the team ahead.
"Everyone in the room is like, 'This is an extremely winnable game,' " Cooper said.
Alex Killorn said the message was: bring more emotion and think, "How good it would it feel to come back and win this game?"
This one felt fantastic for the Lightning, a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Maple Leafs in front of a sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay erased a three-goal deficit in just 6 minutes, 52 seconds, extending its Atlantic Division lead to five points over the idle Bruins.
It wouldn't have been the end of the world if Tampa Bay had lost Tuesday. But it sure seemed like a big win, one that could lock them in with nine games left before the playoffs.
"Once you clinch (a playoff spot), you just want to make sure emotionally you're invested in every game, because when playoffs come, it'll be a lot of emotions — you have to be ready," Killorn said. "There's no switch to flip."
The Lightning very well could end up facing the Leafs in the playoffs, though Tuesday's win put it a step further to ensuring that wouldn't happen until a second round. Tampa Bay's rally took advantage of a bad Leafs line change, a botched faceoff play and a fortunate bounce.
"I thought they pushed as a veteran team and we didn't respond," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said.
The Lightning was passive in the first period or so, falling behind on two James Van Riemsdyk goals (one coming on the power play) and another by Zach Hyman off a Tyler Johnson turnover.
"They were dictating the pace," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We wanted to try to tilt the ice in our favor."
Hedman got that started with his goal with a little over three minutes left in the second. He darted into the Toronto zone and ripped a shot past Frederik Andersen.
"The first one was huge," Hedman said.
And McDonagh made sure the intermission good vibes carried over with his snipe 84 seconds into the third. "It had to be some sort of bad line change (for Toronto)," McDonagh said. "We had a lot of time and space and I was yelling 'Yanni!' Hoped he'd give it to me. Great job by him to pull up."
Nikita Kucherov's bad-angled shot tied it up two minutes later. And Killorn put Tampa Bay up for good midway through the period. Killorn said they had a faceoff play drawn up, but had to improvise when a Leafs player lost his stick. Rookie Anthony Cirelli found Killorn in the high-slot for the winner.
"Johnny on the spot," Killorn said.
The win put the Lightning in a good spot heading into a weekend road trip to New York and New Jersey.
Wing Ryan Callahan won't be going, as he suffered an upper-body injury in the first. But Tampa Bay has some momentum, and a record-setting goalie. Andrei Vasilevskiy clinched the franchise mark for wins in a season (41), surpassing mentor Ben Bishop (40 in 2014-15).
"He's one of the best goalies in the NHL and it's pretty nice to break his record," Vasilevskiy said. "But it's not my goal for the season. All the records, to be honest, (mean nothing). Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. So we'll see in the playoffs."
And Tuesday was a good start.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.