SUNRISE — The Lightning were without two of their top players Saturday night against the Panthers, but the absences of Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli gave others the opportunity to step up.
And that’s what made Tampa Bay’s 6-1 win at BB&T Center one of the team’s most rewarding of the season.
Whether it was Tyler Johnson — who saw two early scoring chances go off his stick, then scored twice in the second period — or Gemel Smith — up from the taxi squad to make two sparkling assists in his first NHL game since Oct. 6, 2019 — the Lightning found ways to compensate for the absences.
“We’ve got some key players (out of) the lineup that take up a lot of minutes, and guys have to step into their spots, and I think the guys did an exceptional job,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You have to be adept to be able to weather the storm, and those guys did just that, and it’s a big reason why we won.”
Cirelli, the team’s top two-way forward, left Thursday’s game against the Panthers favoring his right arm. He will be “out a bit” and will be reevaluated when the team returns to Tampa, Cooper said.
Stamkos was unavailable for Thursday’s game due to a lower-body injury, and the Lightning classified him then as day to day. Then Friday he landed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list. Stamkos said he believes he had a false positive test result. He can’t practice, travel or play in games while on the list.
The Lightning (10-2-1) on Saturday rebounded from their most disappointing loss of the season two days earlier, when the Panthers outskated them in a 5-2 setback. “The first game they outcompeted us,” Johnson said. “(Saturday) we wanted to return the favor.”
After a scoreless first period, the Lightning scored four times total in the second with Johnson accounting for half while back at center with Cirelli out.
In the first, Johnson couldn’t convert his two scoring chances, including one that skipped off his stick on a power play.
He scored his first goal with 7:02 left in the second and the Lightning leading 2-0, taking a well-placed feed from Smith at the end line and launching a one-timer from the right circle.
“Those are tough,” Johnson said of his missed scoring opportunities. “They can get in your head a little bit. But ‘Smitty’ made a great play on my first one there, and I was able to put it in. So once those go in, it feels a lot better and kind of the pressure gets off you.”
Johnson, who entered the game with one goal in the first 12 games, scored his second of the night backhanding a rebound on the right side of the crease into the net with 12 seconds left in the second.
“It probably popped their balloon,” Cooper said of Johnson’s second goal. “But again, the guys, there’s more to their roles, and the guys delivered, and ‘Johnny’ was one of them.”
In the third, Smith, in the forward mix, also assisted on forward Alex Volkov’s first NHL goal.
The Lightning were outshot 11-4 in the first, but five of those Panthers shots came on a four-minute penalty after defenseman Victor Hedman’s double minor for high-sticking 9:33 into the period. Tampa Bay’s penalty kill, without a key piece in Cirelli, performed well, killing all four of the Panthers’ power plays.
“It was huge, and just the way we did it, too,” Cooper said of the four-minute kill. “In four minutes, I don’t think (the Panthers) had anything brewing for three-quarters of it. But to get us through that, we didn’t want to be chasing the game again.”
Two quick goals in the second gave the Lightning more momentum.
Forward Ondrej Palat scored his sixth goal of the season — his team-high fourth on the power play — rifling a one-timer after a pass from Hedman past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky 4:11 into the second. Forward Mathieu Joseph then scored his fifth goal of the season 1:21 later, collecting a blocked shot in the neutral zone that lead to a breakaway.
“I think we’re confident that our group, no matter who’s in the lineup, it’s a team effort and a next-man-up mentality,” Johnson said, “and I thought we came out with a great effort from everyone. It’s definitely hard to replace (Stamkos and Cirelli), but I think everyone’s got to give it a little bit more.”
First Period—None. Penalties—Luostarinen, FLA (Delay of Game), 4:46; Hedman, TB (High Sticking), 9:33; Weegar, FLA (Roughing), 14:35; Killorn, TB (Interference), 14:35.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Palat 6 (Hedman, Sergachev), 4:11 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Joseph 5, 5:32. 3, Tampa Bay, Johnson 2 (Smith), 12:58. 4, Tampa Bay, Johnson 3 (Rutta, Palat), 19:48. Penalties—Nutivaara, FLA (Slashing), 3:20; Rutta, TB (Hooking), 8:14; Maroon, TB (Holding Stick), 17:08.
Third Period—5, Florida, Vatrano 3 (Luostarinen, Connolly), 9:47. 6, Tampa Bay, Volkov 1 (Joseph, Smith), 10:58. 7, Tampa Bay, Goodrow 3 (Gourde), 15:45. Penalties—Coleman, TB (Fighting), 1:33; Gudas, FLA (Fighting), 1:33; Gourde, TB (Roughing), 12:01; Hornqvist, FLA (Roughing), 12:01; Florida bench, served by Tippett (Roughing), 12:01; Yandle, FLA (Cross Checking), 15:10; Smith, TB (Roughing), 15:10.
SOG—TB 4-17-7_28. FLA 11-14-9_34. PP opps—TB 1 of 3; FLA 0 of 4. Goalies—TB, Vasilevskiy 8-2-1 (34 shots-33 saves). FLA, Bobrovsky 5-0-1 (28-22). A—4,509 (19,250). T—2:32. Referees—Jean Hebert, Furman South. Linesmen—Dan Kelly, Libor Suchanek
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