TAMPA — It was Kids Night at Amalie Arena on Sunday.
Heck, it has been Kids Season for the Lightning, with rookies helping keep its once-lost season afloat.
"We wouldn't be where we are without these guys," coach Jon Cooper said.
Where Tampa Bay is, after Sunday's 6-3 victory over the Stars, is three points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with four games to go. The Lightning faces mammoth matchups this week against two teams it's chasing: Tuesday in Boston (which is four points ahead, with one fewer game left) and Thursday in Toronto (three points ahead, with a game in hand).
"Lose those games and we're out," defenseman Anton Stralman said.
The Lightning is still in it after winning five of its past six games largely due to its rookies, who combined for three goals and five points Sunday. Adam Erne, 21, had two goals. Yanni Gourde, 25, has two tying goals in the past month and one overtime winner. Brayden Point, 21, is on the top line, Jake Dotchin, 23, the top defensive pair. Gabriel Dumont, 26, is a go-to faceoff man.
"We want to contribute," Erne said. "We don't just want to be passengers on a run like this."
This Lightning looked like passengers in the second period against Dallas. It fell behind 2-1 to the already eliminated Stars. And it could have been down 3-1 had a shorthanded goal by Dallas not been overturned due to an offside challenge by Tampa Bay. It was one of three Dallas goals waved off.
A Tyler Seguin goal with 1:17 left in the game would have cut the Lightning's lead to one had it not been for a high-sticking call.
"We got the breaks when we needed them," Cooper said.
Defenseman Braydon Coburn's goal with 17 seconds left in the second tied the score at 2 and gave the Lightning some life. And that carried over into a make-or-break third period.
The message at intermission was simple.
"It comes down to our season," Cooper said. "That was the discussion in the room: 'Do you want to give yourself a chance to play past next Sunday?' "
Point, a surprising stalwart all season, scored the go-ahead goal five minutes into the third on a slick feed by Dotchin. Then Ondrej Palat, whom Cooper dubbed a "man-child," scored a power-play goal off an unreal no-look feed from Jonathan Drouin. Erne followed with a spin-o-rama shot and his third career goal.
"That's secondary scoring that we've needed," Cooper said.
The Lightning did get healthier Sunday. Though Steven Stamkos (knee surgery) wasn't back, center Tyler Johnson (lower body) was, as was defenseman Jason Garrison, whose night ended in the second period out of fear he might have re-aggravated his lower-body injury.
With all the injuries, the Lightning callups have been game-changers. First they energized a stale Stanley Cup favorite with desperation and prove-it determination. Then they were regulars by necessity after two veterans were dealt at the trade deadline and three centers got hurt March 9 against Minnesota.
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Wing Alex Killorn quipped that some linesmen probably don't know the kids' names. But they haven't been forgotten in the Lightning room.
Said Palat; "They're part of us now."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTImes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Erne 2 (Sustr, Gourde), 11:27. Penalties—None.
Second Period—2, Dallas, Smith 3 (Spezza, Lindell), 1:49. 3, Dallas, Spezza 14 (Klingberg, Lindell), 10:57. 4, Tampa Bay, Coburn 4 (Stralman, Palat), 19:42. Penalties—Hamhuis, DAL, (holding), 4:10.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Point 14 (Dotchin, Palat), 5:43. 6, Tampa Bay, Palat 17 (Kucherov, Drouin), 13:27 (pp). 7, Tampa Bay, Erne 3 (Namestnikov, Johnson), 14:37. 8, Dallas, Ritchie 15 (Shore, Lindell), 16:40. 9, Tampa Bay, Stralman 5, 19:58. Penalties—Faksa, DAL, (tripping), 11:26; Namestnikov, TB, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 11:26; Elie, DAL, (hooking), 12:12; Gourde, TB, (slashing), 14:40. Shots on Goal—Dallas 9-7-10—26. Tampa Bay 8-6-11—25. Power-play opportunities—Dallas 0 of 1; Tampa Bay 1 of 2. Goalies—Dallas, Lehtonen 21-24-7 (24 shots-19 saves). Tampa Bay, Budaj 30-21-3 (26-23).