NEWARK, N.J. — The Lightning teams of the past thrived on the road. They went into opposing arenas, overcame the pushes a host team made and still figured out ways to win. And when the postseason arrived, and the pressure on the road grew, the Lightning rose to the challenge.
This week in New Jersey, the Lightning looked like their old selves away from Amalie Arena. They approached this week’s two road games at the Prudential Center against a playoff-bound opponent as a dress rehearsal for the postseason.
And they left New Jersey a much more confident team on the road after taking both games following Thursday night’s back-and-forth 4-3 shootout win.
The Lightning gave away two one-goal leads in the third period, fighting off a determined Devils team and a loud New Jersey crowd through a scoreless, five-minute 3-on-3 overtime before Alex Killorn’s third-round shootout goal gave Tampa Bay four points over the past two games.
“When you get down to this time of year, teams have separated themselves,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s playoff teams and there’s non-playoff teams. This team that we played tonight is clearly a playoff team. And we’re trying to make sure we’re one of those teams and to come in here and get four (points) is a big boost for our club, especially after our past 10 or 12 games. So really proud of the guys for their effort.”
Killorn beat Devils goaltender Akira Schmid low on the blocker side — Killorn said he saw Ross Colton do the same in the first round of the shootout — prompting a celebration on the ice while the Prudential Center cleared out. The Lightning (41-22-6, 88 points) beat the Devils 4-1 on Tuesday night and host them on Sunday.
“It definitely has a playoff feel to it,” Killorn said. “That’s what happens when you play in the playoffs. So we’re kind of treating these three games kind of like getting us ready for a playoff series. Not that we’re going to play them, but you just want to get in a mindset where you could figure out teams, what they do well and what they don’t do as well and you try to exploit that.”
Building momentum on the road has been a struggle. The Lightning’s two wins in New Jersey pushed them over .500 on the season, improving to 17-16-1 away from Amalie Arena.
“We hadn’t been playing very well on the road,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We could feel our game getting a little better over the course of the last week and a half here. And these two games were I think a byproduct of us playing the way we want to (as the playoffs approach).”
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Stamkos returned to the lineup after missing Tuesday’s game recovering from a left knee injury and scored twice, recording his first multi-goal game in nearly two months. He scored a hat trick on the night he notched his 500th career goal on Jan. 18 in Vancouver, which was also his last three-point night.
In both games this week, the Lightning took momentum with the penalty kill. Anthony Cirelli’s short-handed goal on Tuesday sparked the team. And on Thursday, the Lightning killed off a full-minute 5-on-3 Devils power play after Stamkos and defenseman Erik Cernak went to the penalty box.
After getting back to even strength, Cernak pushed the puck up the ice and found Pierre-Edouard Bellemare behind the net. Stamkos was trailing, called for the puck and took a saucer pass from Bellemare and whipped a shot from the slot to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead just 20 seconds after they killed off the 5-on-3 with 1:49 left in the second period.
“I wanted to get it off quick,” Stamkos said. “It was a big momentum shift in the game to kill that off and then score right away.”
After Timo Meier tied the score midway through the third period, Stamkos put the Lightning up again on a one-timer from the left circle on the power play. But Meier scored again, this time with the Devils on the power play with 2:16 left in regulation.
The Lightning managed just three shots on goal in the third, and the Devils had eight high-danger scoring chances in the period to the Lightning’s zero. After the first period, New Jersey outshot the Lightning 27-13, but goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was magnificent late with 33 saves on the night.
Stamkos left Saturday’s game after his knee locked up in the first period. He returned the following night, a move he said was probably premature. He sat out Tuesday’s game and after some time off and two days of treatment, he said the knee felt 10 times better going into Thursday night.
“It was probably good for him that he sat one out, just good for his body, good for his mind,” Cooper said. “Some big plays he made out there tonight for us. He’s been scoring in this league for a long time and we needed the goals he scored tonight.”
Stamkos played well centering a line with Ross Colton and Nick Paul, returning back to the middle after spending the past several games at wing on the top line with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.
“We switched the lines up a little bit and sometimes a little mental break is good, too,” Stamkos said. “You just go in with kind of a fresh attitude. So that was nice to see tonight.”
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