TAMPA — For the first time in a few weeks, a Lightning game ended in regulation.
But that doesn't mean there wasn't any drama at the end.
As dominating as Tampa Bay was for a good portion of Thursday's 5-3 win over the rebuilding Rangers at Amalie Arena in front of announced sellout crowd of 19,092, there was a tinge of disappointment that the game was even close in the final few minutes.
A four-goal third-period lead was cut to two, sparking memories of blown leads Saturday against the Flyers and March 1 against the Stars.
"It's just contagious on the bench," said veteran wing Chris Kunitz. "I don't know if we're taking our foot off the gas. But it's tough to play a full game like we were in the first 15 minutes (Thursday). But we've still got to have a better mind-set to go out there and close games out in the third.
"It doesn't feel good when you come in and they score the last goal or have a chance to tie the game late."
In the big picture, the Lightning (47-17-4) has won eight of its past nine games (8-0-1) and holds a six-point Atlantic Division lead over the Bruins, who have three games in hand. And it was encouraging that Tampa Bay didn't need to go past regulation Thursday, snapping a franchise record of six straight such games (one shy of the NHL record).
#tblightning holds on - this time, without OT- beating #NYrangers 5-3. Sloppy way to end what had been a dominating start. "Coaches cannot be happy with what they witnessed in the third period. Can't be" - Phil Esposito— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) March 9, 2018
But the way this game started, it had a blowout by the Lightning written all over it. A day after goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy admitted he's dealing with mental and physical fatigue, his teammates gave him a major breather in the first period. They allowed just five shots, none in the first 11 minutes.
And for as much as the Lightning has worked on its defensive-zone coverage the past week in practice, its relentless work in the offensive zone early Thursday could be a model to follow.
"We spent a lot of time in their end," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "A recipe to keep getting pucks out of your net is having the puck yourself."
The Lightning took a two-goal first-period lead thanks to goals by Cedric Paquette and Adam Erne. Rookie Anthony Cirelli had an impressive three-point night, scoring a goal and adding two assists.
"He's been a great fit," Hedman said.
"Young kid playing with confidence, it's fun to see," Kunitz said.
Kunitz and Tyler Johnson had goals in the second period to make it a 5-1 game. This one should have been game over. Lights out.
But the Rangers, sellers at last month's trade deadline, crawled their way back. Mats Zuccarello scored three minutes into the third. Kevin Hayes added a goal on a deflection with just over two minutes to go. There was sloppiness in the Lightning's end, turnovers and failures to clear the zone.
Bad line changes, too.
But there also wasn't as much aggressiveness and time spent in the Rangers' zone, something Tampa Bay did so well early. By the end, Vasilevskiy had faced 30 shots for the 19th time in his past 25 starts.
Vasilevskiy closed it out to become the first NHL goalie to 40 wins this season, a number that ties the franchise record.
"He gives us a chance to win every night," coach Jon Cooper said. "If you look at the big picture this season, he's done a heck of a job for us. He deserves to have the win totals he has."
The Lightning just wished there weren't as many stressful minutes toward the end.
Lightning 2 3 0 5
Rangers 0 1 2 3
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Paquette 3 (Callahan, Kunitz), 2:31. 2, Tampa Bay, Erne 3 (Cirelli), 7:50. Penalties—Kreider, NYR, (delay of game), 3:14; Namestnikov, NYR, (slashing), 11:20; Sergachev, TB, (interference), 17:28.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Cirelli 2 (Sergachev, Killorn), 1:53. 4, N.Y. Rangers, Spooner 11 (Fast, Hayes), 7:10. 5, Tampa Bay, Kunitz 12 (Cirelli), 12:35. 6, Tampa Bay, Johnson 19 (Kucherov, Sergachev), 17:30. Penalties—Gilmour, NYR, (holding), 3:05; Callahan, TB, (tripping), 7:36; Zuccarello, NYR, (tripping), 8:27; Stamkos, TB, (holding), 15:04.
Third Period—7, N.Y. Rangers, Zuccarello 11 (Spooner), 3:27. 8, N.Y. Rangers, Hayes 19 (O'Gara, Spooner), 17:41. Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—N.Y. Rangers 5-15-10—30. Tampa Bay 21-15-9—45. Power-play opportunities—N.Y. Rangers 0 of 3; Tampa Bay 0 of 4. Goalies—N.Y. Rangers, Georgiev 1-2-0 (14 shots-13 saves), Lundqvist 25-23-5 (31-27). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 40-12-3 (30-27).