NEW YORK — Captain Steven Stamkos said his ongoing joke with teammates is that it's "embarrassing" he leads the Lightning in penalty minutes. And it's not close.
"We're not that team that has that big fighter," Stamkos said.
But Stamkos' timely bouts this season have become turning points.
One was Stamkos' late first-period bout Friday, which helped spark the Lightning's 7-3 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Tampa Bay had give up the first goal for the fourth straight game, trying to find its legs after an emotional pregame ceremony for former Rangers Ryan McDonagh, J.T Miller and Dan Girardi, playing their first game in New York since joining the Lightning this season. The Lightning flipped the switch in the second to score five unanswered goals, with Cedric Paquette saying Stamkos' fight changed the game.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak as the Lightning tied the team record of 108 points, and it propelled Tampa Bay (52-22-4) back into first place in the Atlantic Division, by one point over the Bruins, who have a game in hand.
"That's why (Stamkos has) the 'C' on his jersey," said coach Jon Cooper, who passed John Tortorella for most career Lightning wins with his 240th. "It was tough to lose him for 17 (penalty minutes), but what he did went miles. It lifted our team."
Both of Stamkos' fights this season have come in response to hits on linemate Nikita Kucherov. This time it was Pavel Buchnevich's knee-area, open-ice clip.
"It's just stick up for yourself," Stamkos said. "Stick up for your teammates."
The most encouraging aspect of this game and Thursday night's loss in Boston was the Lightning finding more consistent edge and emotion in its game, which it'll need not only next week in games against Nashville and Boston, but in the playoffs.
"For us, the playoffs have started already," Cedric Paquette said.
Paquette had a monster game, with two goals, an assist, a team-high six shots and five hits. He was an unlikely catalyst for an offensive explosion, the seven goals nearly doubling Tampa Bay's total from the previous three games combined (four).
Paquette got it started early in the second period with a rebound goal. Alex Killorn followed suit. Miller added a rebound goal on a power play. Girardi also scored on a power play. Brayden Point scored twice to give him his first 30-goal season.
"Well, the dam had to break at some point," Cooper said.
Backup goalie Louis Domingue made sure the lead held and has won seven of his 10 starts with Tampa Bay since being acquired in a November trade with the Coyotes (six on the road). His biggest save came in the second on a penalty kill, thwarting a backdoor attempt by Chris Kreider.
The much-maligned penalty kill had a bounce-back night, killing off the first three power plays by New York. Tampa Bay had been at just 60 percent on the penalty kill in its previous nine games.
Beating the rebuilding Rangers is one thing. True tests will come Sunday against Nashville and Tuesday against Boston at Amalie Arena. But Friday was an encouraging step.
"We know we play better when we're bringing that emotion and intensity," Miller said. "We got away from that in the first period, but stepped it up after that."
Partly thanks to the captain.
Lightning 0 2 5 7
Rangers 1 0 2 3
First Period—1, N.Y. Rangers, Skjei 4 (Buchnevich, Desharnais), 14:59. Penalties—Stamkos, TB, (boarding), 16:53; Buchnevich, NYR, (tripping), 20:00; Stamkos, TB, Major (fighting), 20:00; Buchnevich, NYR, Major (fighting), 20:00; Stamkos, TB, (instigator), 20:00; Stamkos, TB, Misconduct (misconduct), 20:00.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Paquette 4 (Miller, Sergachev), 3:15. 3, Tampa Bay, Killorn 15 (Hedman, Cirelli), 4:33. Penalties—Girardi, TB, (tripping), 9:31; Pionk, NYR, (interference), 10:04; Miller, TB, (hooking), 12:33; Namestnikov, NYR, (interference), 12:57; Kreider, NYR, (roughing), 19:16; Kreider, NYR, served by Spooner, (roughing), 19:16; Gourde, TB, (roughing), 19:16.
Third—4, Tampa Bay, Miller 22 (Killorn, Hedman), 0:35 (pp). 5, Tampa Bay, Paquette 5 (Conacher, Kunitz), 1:53. 6, Tampa Bay, Point 29 (Gourde), 2:38. 7, N.Y. Rangers, Chytil 1 (Hayes, Zuccarello), 8:14. 8, N.Y. Rangers, Kreider 16 (Zibanejad, Fast), 16:31. 9, Tampa Bay, Point 30 (Gourde), 18:16. 10, Tampa Bay, Girardi 5 (Kunitz, Paquette), 19:26 (pp). Penalties—Kunitz, TB, (hooking), 4:05; Namestnikov, NYR, (interference), 18:44. SOG—TB 13-15-22—50. N.Y. Rangers 8-10-13—31. PP opps—TB 2 of 4; N.Y. Rangers 0 of 4. Goalies—TB, Domingue 7-9-0 (31 shots-28 saves). N.Y. Rangers, Pavelec 4-8-1 (49-43).