NEW YORK, N.Y. – The Tampa Bay Lightning are carrying a big check mark on their to-do list into the holiday break they have certainly earned.
After losing in overtime to the New York Islanders on Wednesday, the Lightning outlasted the New York Rangers to win 4-3 in a long shootout on Thursday night.
Ryan Malone scored in the 11th round to end it and give Tampa Bay its fifth win in six games and vault the Lightning into a first-place tie with Washington in the Southeast Division. Not bad for a club that has played an NHL-high 21 road games and won 10.
“With the crazy schedule we had, 15 of 21 games on the road, we wanted to survive above .500. We did more than that,” rookie NHL coach Guy Boucher said. “Our short-term goal was to be first in our division by Christmas. It just shows how much character the guys have.”
Steven Stamkos scored his 27th goal, and Martin St. Louis added a goal and assist for the Lightning (20-10-5), who have reached 20 wins faster than ever. The team’s previous record was 20 wins in 40 games (2005-06). Last season, it took them 50 games.
Rangers rookie Derek Stepan scored for the third straight game to tie it with 8:42 left in regulation, but New York couldn’t finish the comeback. The shootout was tied 2-2 after three rounds, and the next 15 shooters were denied until Malone won it with a drive that caromed in off the crossbar.
The Rangers held a 17-7 shots advantage in the third period, but were outshot 3-0 in overtime.
“We have to be happy with how we grinded and how we played,” Stepan said. “Other than a couple of breakdowns that ended up in the back of the net, we played exactly the way we wanted.”
Stamkos, who along with St. Louis was kept off the score sheet in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss, quickly regained his scoring touch by netting his sixth goal in eight games. St. Louis put Tampa Bay ahead 1-0 just two minutes in and helped set up Stamkos’ tying goal late in the first period.
Vincent Lecavalier put the Lightning back ahead in the second. Tampa Bay has earned at least a point in seven straight games (5-0-2). Dan Ellis, who made 34 saves, has started three straight games since fellow goalie Mike Smith injured a knee.
“We’re a team that doesn’t give up a lot of shots a lot. I enjoy those kinds of games,” Ellis said. “It just keeps you in your game when you have constant action.”
Ruslan Fedotenko and Alex Frolov scored 12 seconds apart in the first to give the Rangers a brief lead and prompt Boucher to burn his timeout. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 21 shots for the Rangers, who were missing top-line forward Marian Gaborik because of a groin injury.
The Rangers, playing for the first time since a 4-1 loss at Philadelphia on Saturday, have dropped two in a row (0-1-1) following a three-game winning streak.
“It’s definitely frustrating. We played pretty well and were the better team the whole game,” Lundqvist said.
St. Louis did all the work himself on the Lightning’s first goal. He stole the puck in the neutral zone and skated in alone to score his 14th.
Fedotenko got that one back at 11:16, and Frolov cleaned up a rebound of Artem Anisimov’s shot in front to make it 2-1 at 11:28.
The Rangers then gave up the next two goals to relinquish the lead.
Stamkos got the comeback started late in the first when St. Louis turned a turnover by defenceman Dan Girardi into a goal. St. Louis got the puck in the left circle and made a slick pass behind his back to Stamkos, who zipped a shot past Lundqvist to make it 2-2 with 1:06 left in the period.
Girardi took a tripping penalty 26 seconds into the second, but after the Rangers killed it, they controlled the puck for large stretches. Despite the puck possession and pressure in the Lightning end—including a prime, short-handed chance—the Rangers couldn’t go back in front.
“I was yelling, ‘Bend, but don’t break.’ We were just kind of hanging on,” Malone said. They were kind of firing for a little bit, but as long as they’re not going in the net it’s OK.”
The Lightning grabbed a 3-2 lead with 5:18 remaining in the second. Pavel Kubina slid the puck from the right corner along the goal line toLecavalier, who used his quick stick to deflect it inside the right post for his fourth goal on Tampa Bay’s fourth shot of the frame.
NOTES: This game tied for the sixth-longest NHL shootout. … Lecavalier scored his first goal in five games after missing 15 because of a broken right hand. … St. Louis has four goals and 10 assists in his last nine games. … Rangers LW Mats Zuccarello, recalled from Connecticut of the AHL on Wednesday, made his NHL debut and scored in the shootout. … New York coach John Tortorella expects Gaborik to play Monday against the Islanders.