TAMPA — Make it three games to one in favor of the Lightning.
What had the look and feel of a four-game playoff series the past six days concluded with Tampa Bay taking a 3-1 win over Carolina on Thursday night at Amalie Arena.
The win was the Lightning’s 11th in their last 12 home games against the Hurricanes and lifted them 8-1-0 on the riverfront this season.
Make no mistake, though, it was not the Lightning’s best game. Among other things that did not look so good was an 0-for-5 showing on the powerplay. But they found a way to come out on top thanks largely to the penalty kill and Curtis McElhinney’s 31 saves.
“I don’t know if we gave out three stars, but he was star one, two and three,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
The game-winner and series clincher, if you will, came off the stick of Yanni Gourde at 6:22 of the third period. Gourde took a gorgeous head-man pass from Victor Hedman and from deep in the right circle wristed his fifth goal of the season over James Reimer’s right shoulder.
“It’s huge, especially a short season and playing against these guys a lot,” said Gourde, of the win. “It was great to get the two points tonight. (The four games against the Hurricanes) felt a little bit like playoff games and we were fortunate to get the win tonight.”
McElhinney, making his third start of the season, stoned Steven Lorentz from in tight with about three minutes remaining to help preserve the victory against his former teammates.
“I felt pretty good and had a lot of good blocks in front,” said the 37-year-old goalie. “It was a huge two points for everybody in the dressing room tonight.”
Shortly after McElhinney’s save on Lorentz, Barclay Goodrow took advantage of a Carolina turnover by putting home an empty net goal with 1:16 remaining.
Carolina struck first on a goal by Brett Pesce at 14:23 of the opening period. It was a period in which the Lightning had only one shot on goal in the first 10-plus minutes and with Carolina taking a 13-6 advantage after 20 minutes.
The Lightning (13-4-1) were able to even it up at 12:39 of the second period when Mikhail Sergachev made a nifty move along the goal line and put the puck past Reimer. It was the 22-year-old defenseman’s first goal of the season and first in the regular season since last March 9 at Boston, a stretch of 19 games. He scored three times in the postseason.
“It was real nice and it came at the right time,” said Sergachev.
The penalty kill came up huge later in the period. With Ondrej Palat in the box, Blake Coleman lost his stick and Carolina maintained possession for a solid minute or so before Coleman cleared the zone with his glove. That was the key play among many that were made in killing off five Hurricanes powerplays on the evening.
For the first time since February 15 when they hosted the Panthers, the Lightning will play a team other than Carolina when the Stars come to town — finally! — Saturday night at 7. The Lightning will play in Dallas on Tuesday night. The teams were scheduled to play January 17 and 19 at Amalie Arena, games that were scuttled due to COVID issues with the Stars. A pair of games scheduled to be played in Dallas last week were also postponed thanks to the aftereffects of a winter storm that paralyzed the Lone Star State.
Tom Layberger is also a contributing writer for forbes.com