SUNRISE, Fla. – Tomas Vokoun got all the praise and reached a milestone in the Florida Panthers’ latest win.
Vokoun stopped 35 shots, and the Panthers kept working toward a playoff spot with a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
Vokoun (30-26-8), the second Panthers goalie to post 30 wins in a season, made 32 saves over the final two periods and held the Lightning scoreless on five power-play opportunities in the second period.
“He had an unbelievable game. Better than great, unbelievable,” Tampa Bay forward Vincent Lecavalier said. “He came through time and again in the clutch.”
The Panthers are 10th in the Eastern Conference, three points and two places behind Philadelphia and Boston, who are tied at the post-season cutoff.
Florida, which finished its seven-game homestand 6-0-1, beat Tampa Bay for the 12th time in 15 games.
“I thought that he was our dominant player,” Florida coach Jacques Martin said of Vokoun. “He was the guy who won the hockey game for us.”
Vokoun stopped 16 of 17 shots in the second period, when the Lightning missed repeated opportunities to convert with the man advantage.
“Obviously we took a lot of penalties in the second period and gave them momentum. But we achieved what we wanted to. We’re still in the race,” Vokoun said. “We still have a lot of life. You just don’t know. We have to be focused to the end and see what happens.”
Playing with a sense of desperation, the Panthers struck less than four minutes in.
Jay Bouwmeester picked off an errant clearing attempt by goalie Mike Smith, who was caught out of the crease, and converted a one-timer into the far right corner of the open net.
The unassisted power-play goal was the first man-advantage tally given up by the Lightning in five games. Opponents were 0-11 over that stretch.
It was Bouwmeester’s career-high 13th goal. His previous best total was 12, set last season.
Junior Lessard tied it for Tampa Bay with his first goal of the season at 6:15 of the second period. Lessard took a pass from Mathieu Darche behind the net and beat Vokoun.
Florida regained the lead at 7:28 when Nathan Horton scored high from between the circles for his 24th goal. The play was set up by a perfect feed from David Booth on the left side.
Stephen Weiss, who earned his 29th assist on the goal, said Vokoun was clearly the difference.
“He was awesome. He was our best player,” Weiss said. “He was the reason we won the game.”
Florida took 26 shots on goal, nine in the first period.
Olli Jokinen gave Florida the cushion it needed. With Dan Boyle in the box for hooking, the Panthers captain took a backhanded tip pass from Brett McLean and sent a slapshot past Smith to make it 3-1.
While giving credit to his goalie, Jokinen said the Panthers still need to improve over the final six games if they hope to secure a post-season spot.
“Vokoun saved the game for us,” Jokinen said. “We have to do a lot better, be a lot more desperate next week.”
Horton added an empty-net goal for Florida before Tampa Bay closed the scoring with Darche’s sixth.
“We’re growing as a team and we’re playing better, as you can see,” Horton said. “It’s a matter of do or die and we’ve got to win every game.”
Notes: Roberto Luongo won a team-record 35 games for the Panthers in the 2005-06 season. … The Panthers are 26-9 in regulation at home against Tampa Bay. … Horton has scored three winning goals in March. … C Jeff Halpern (abdominal strain) and D Paul Ranger (left shoulder) didn’t play and are day-to-day. … The Lightning failed to score on the power play for the first time in six games. … Lightning D Boyle needs one point to reach 250 in the NHL.