TAMPA — Ondrej Palat is not the kind of player you should judge solely on the score sheet.
The Lightning wing is known for his versatility and a relentless work ethic his teammates admire. There's a reason Palat is considered the engine of the Triplets line.
But still, he hasn't had many signature moments this season.
That changed in a big way Saturday. Palat capped off a monster performance with the go-ahead goal with about two minutes to go in a 3-2 victory over the Panthers at Amalie Arena. Palat had a game-high seven shots, helping lift the Lightning, on a 10-2-3 run, within three points of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
"Arguably the best player on the ice," coach Jon Cooper said. "He was a stud."
Palat wasn't alone. There also was rookie Yanni Gourde, who made his first NHL goal unforgettable, tying the score at 2 in the second period on a shorthanded partial breakaway.
"It's something you dream about," Gourde said. "A surreal moment."
There also was goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who delivered a sixth straight 30-plus-saves performance, moving to 5-0-1 since taking over as No. 1 from traded Ben Bishop. And there were the kids. The Lightning was playing without injured centers Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette, all hurt in Thursday's game against the Wild. So a young lineup filled with six rookies provided a spark and some edge.
This game was nasty. It was an intense matchup befitting Atlantic Division rivals fighting for their playoff lives. Two Panthers players left the game with concussions, defenseman Aaron Ekblad after a hit by center Gabriel Dumont, and center Denis Malgin following a beauty of a hip check by Anton Stralman.
"It's desperation mode," Cooper said. "And guys are playing with it."
The Lightning (32-26-9) was desperate after falling behind 2-0 in the first. It took some odd goals to beat Vasilevskiy. The first was a bad-angled shot by ageless Jaromir Jagr on a power play. The second was a deflection off Nikita Kucherov's stick. But there was no panic in the Lightning dressing room.
"We were thinking there was no way we should be down 2-0 in that game," Cooper said.
It wasn't down for long. Kucherov's power-play goal four minutes into the second set a career season high for goals (31). Then came Gourde's milestone goal. He stripped Vincent Trocheck at the blue line and finished off a breakaway, with the Panthers wing slashing and grabbing him. Then Tampa Bay killed off a 5-on-3 power play.
"That (goal) was uplifting to all of us," Cooper said.
So was Palat. With less than three minutes to go, Palat lifted his stick in the slot and redirected an Andrej Sustr shot from the point. It snapped a seven-game goal drought.
"Just playing hard, playing my game and just waiting, 'It's going to go in,' " Palat said. "And (Saturday) I got the lucky bounce."
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But make no mistake, Palat made his own breaks.
"I loved his attack, his will," Cooper said. "He just saved every play. It was fitting he ended up getting the winner."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes-JSmith
First Period—1, Florida, Jagr 14 (Barkov, Marchessault), 16:32. 2, Florida, Pysyk 4 (Smith, Barkov), 19:13. Penalties—Brown, TB, Major (fighting), 1:59; Petrovic, FLA, Major (fighting), 1:59; Demers, FLA, (holding), 7:27; Palat, TB, (hooking), 14:22.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 31 (Hedman, Drouin), 3:43 (pp). 4, Tampa Bay, Gourde 1, 10:11 (sh). Penalties—Yandle, FLA, served by Marchessault, (roughing), 2:58; Dumont, TB, Major (fighting), 2:58; Yandle, FLA, Major (fighting), 2:58; Petrovic, FLA, served by Marchessault, (roughing), 6:17; Petrovic, FLA, Misconduct (misconduct), 6:17; Petrovic, FLA, Misconduct (misconduct), 6:17; Palat, TB, (roughing), 6:35; Sceviour, FLA, (roughing), 6:35; Witkowski, TB, (cross checking), 9:24; Sustr, TB, (high sticking), 10:28; Trocheck, FLA, (roughing), 19:06; Dotchin, TB, (roughing), 19:06.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Palat 14 (Sustr), 17:37. Penalties—Mackenzie, FLA, (tripping), 5:51. Shots on Goal—Florida 13-6-15—34. Tampa Bay 12-10-12—34. Power-play opportunities—Florida 0 of 3; Tampa Bay 1 of 4. Goalies—Florida, Reimer 12-12-5 (34 shots-31 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 16-13-6 (34-32).