TAMPA — Before the puck dropped, the Lightning knew their matchup Sunday against the Panthers would be a battle.
Florida, which entered the game two points behind Central Division-leading Tampa Bay, held a 2-1 lead in the season series.
But the Lightning (23-6-2) got even, with Curtis McElhinney making 29 saves in a 5-3 win at Amalie Arena. Tyler Johnson broke a 3-3 tie with the eventual winner on a power play midway through the third period.
It was McElhinney’s third victory in seven starts this season.
“I felt great,” said McElhinney, who doesn’t get many opportunities behind starter Andrei Vasilevskiy. “It’s one of those games where there were a lot of shots early on, and I think it allowed me to get into the game right away.”
The last time McElhinney started was March 15, a 4-1 loss to Nashville that extended his losing streak to three games.
It’s why, he said, he has put extra emphasis on practices and morning skates.
“I think for me, it’s just the ability to see pucks in practice,” he said. “You don’t get a lot of the traffic work, so at times, that’s probably the hardest part to adjust to when you’re not playing regularly.”
McElhinney called the inconsistency “tricky,” especially with a busy schedule that hasn’t allowed for much practice time or morning skates. It only puts more emphasis on each time he sees the ice in a game situation.
“The nice thing about the game tonight is there was quite a bit of work early on, so there’s no time to wait around,” he said. “You’re not sitting there and then all of a sudden it’s a breakaway. There were shots right away and I think for any goalie they’ll say that’s the easiest way to get into a game.”
In the first period, Florida (20-7-4) put 11 shots on net followed by 12 in the second and nine in the third.
“I thought he played a great game,” wing Alex Killorn said. “He was huge for us. I know a couple games back, we didn’t really help him out.”
Multiple times in the game, McElhinney had to make a key save, including a sprawling stop in the second with a 3-on-1 look.
“When they’re coming down the ice, it’s certainly not something you want to see at any point in the game from a defensive standpoint,” McElhinney chuckled. “Key save, much needed at that point in the game for us.”
And it wasn’t just in goaltending that the Lightning’s depth was tested against Florida. Ryan McDonagh, the team’s second-best defenseman, left the game with a lower-body injury after the first period and did not return.
“It’s tough,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s hard enough playing with six (defenseman), let alone five. ... Huge effort on those five guys. I mean that’s tough, plus you’re playing a hell of a team. ... Those five guys (played) exceptional.”
Cooper did not get into the severity of the injury or give a timetable of McDonagh’s return.
Florida put the clamps on some of the Lightning’s best shooters. Brayden Point, who came in averaging 2.87 shots a game, was limited to one shot on goal while Anthony Cirelli (1.75 shots a game) and Victor Hedman (2.4) had none.
Twelve of the Lightning’s 19 players logged at least one point in the game, with goals from Yanni Gourde, Killorn, Mathieu Joseph, Johnson and Point.
“Those guys (Point, Hedman and Cirelli) have won us a lot of games,” Cooper said. “It’s good when other guys can pick it up that maybe aren’t as used to getting on the scoresheet as much as those other guys. But like I said, that’s a team effort when everybody’s contributing and everybody’s feeling good about themselves, so it was nice to see.”