SUNRISE — Ryan Callahan’s momentum sent him into the boards on his back. He threw out his hands and screamed.
That goal felt good.
Callahan came back from the All-Star break at the end of January ready to play. Then the 33-year-old veteran of 745 career games was told he was out of the Lightning lineup. He had been in a rotation of three forwards on the fourth line, but now he was No. 13 in a lineup for 12.
Callahan called it a gut punch. He said he’d just have to make sure he was ready the next time he got in the lineup. And the fourth-line winger did exactly that. He capitalized on the chance with a goal in his return to the lineup Sunday in a 5-2 win over the Panthers at BB&T Center.
“It’s always good to get an opportunity to get back in,” Callahan said. “You want to contribute, so seeing that one go in is always good.”
It looked good, too. Near the end of the second period, Callahan beat Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad in a foot race for the puck after the Lightning’s Mathieu Joseph had poked it away from Florida forward Vincent Trocheck. With Trocheck closing in behind him, Callahan switched between forehand and backhand six times. He then flipped the puck over goalie James Reimer on the backhand for a 3-1 lead.
The goal ended up the winner for the Lightning (41-11-4).
It wasn’t just Callahan’s first goal since Jan. 10. It was also his first since Callahan was taken out of the regular lineup rotation.
“You have two options in that situation,” he said. “You can get the poor-me’s and sulk, or you go in, work, wait for the next opportunity and make sure when that opportunity comes, you’re ready. I just tried to take the approach of working every day.”
An upper-body injury to Ondrej Palat (day-to-day) gave Callahan the chance to return to the lineup.
Callahan has played in only two of the seven games since the All-Star break (he played in the Feb. 2 win over the Rangers when Brayden Point was hurt). It’s not a simple as this, but the Lightning is 17-2-1 in the past 20 games in which Callahan has played. Tampa Bay is 6-4 in the 10 games without him in that stretch.
“It’s not fun (for Callahan), let’s just put it that way,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “He wants to be out there battling with the guys. He’s an ultimate professional where he’s going to work his (butt) off when he’s not in the lineup. Obviously, we love what he brings when he is in the lineup. He’s been playing great.”
In addition to the goal, Callahan made a season-high seven hits Sunday. He also has three goals and three assists in his past eight games. He has been productive.
Even out of the lineup, Callahan has maintained his presence as a leader in the dressing room.
“That’s the word, he has a presence,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s so well-respected in our room. Everyone respects him.”
Despite the great game from Callahan, it doesn’t necessarily change anything. He played because of an injury. Cooper has previously said Callahan will play again but without any specificity of when. He also has said that young players such as Joseph and Adam Erne need an opportunity to prove themselves.
So now, Callahan is back playing the waiting game.
“I felt good (Sunday),” he said, “and if I get another opportunity in the next game, I need to do it again.”
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 23 (Stralman, Hedman), 4:02. Penalties — Callahan, TB, (hooking), 7:02; Gourde, TB, (high sticking), 17:08; Brassard, FLA, (slashing), 17:08.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 29 (Miller, Stralman), 12:08. 3, Florida, Vatrano 19 (Huberdeau, Matheson), 13:11. 4, Tampa Bay, Callahan 6 (Joseph), 17:51. 5, Florida, Malgin 6 (Brouwer, Sheahan), 18:50. Penalties — Malgin, FLA, (tripping), 3:42; Point, TB, (holding stick), 4:09; Johnson, TB, (hooking), 15:47.
Third Period—6, Tampa Bay, Point 32 (Miller, Kucherov), 4:25 (pp). 7, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 24 (Stamkos, Point), 19:12 (pp). Penalties — Trocheck, FLA, (hooking), 3:23; Kucherov, TB, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 11:54; Yandle, FLA, (hooking), 18:24; Ekblad, FLA, (high sticking), 19:00.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 9-3-11_23. Florida 5-17-5_27.
Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 2 of 4. Florida 0 of 4.
Goalies—Tampa Bay, Domingue 18-4-0 (27 shots-25 saves). Florida, Reimer 10-10-5 (12-9), Luongo 12-12-1 (11-9).
A—13,566 (19,250). T—2:31.
Referees—Trevor Hanson, Wes McCauley. Linesmen—Brad Kovachik, Derek Nansen.