TAMPA — Everywhere you looked Thursday evening, positive signs were evident for the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning.
Ryan Callahan, acquired from the Rangers in the Marty St. Louis trade, scored his first goal in a Tampa Bay uniform. New captain Steven Stamkos fired his patented one-timer for what turned out to be a needed insurance goal, and the Lightning capitalized on a fortunate bounce to end a five-game slide and complete a season sweep of Florida.
It all added up to a 5-4 victory against the Panthers that saw the Lightning forced to hang on after two late third-period goals by the 15th-place team in the Eastern Conference.
“That’s three games in a row for us with a point,’’ said Stamkos, who turned in a strong overall effort against a team he has tormented this season with eight points in three games. “It obviously got a little nerve-wracking at the end, but we deserved the win.’’
After a wild opening period marked by shaky goaltender play from Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop and former Lightning goalie Dan Ellis, Tampa Bay snapped a 2-2 tie with a pair of second-period goals.
Callahan, who had two assists in his first three games with the Lightning, gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 advantage by getting behind Tomas Fleischmann and redirecting a centering pass from Ondrej Palat. Rookie Tyler Johnson was credited with his 21st goal when a puck ricocheted off the leg of veteran Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski with only 67 seconds remaining in the second period.
Stamkos, who helped set up Johnson’s goal, generated a roar midway through the third period with Tampa Bay on a power play. From his customary perch in the left circle, Stamkos made it 5-2 when he converted a diagonal pass from Valtteri Filppula, who finished with three assists.
“That was classic Stammer,’’ said Lightning coach Jon Cooper after Stamkos scored for the first time since returning from a fractured tibia that sidelined him for almost four months. “You have got to love him as a captain.
“He didn’t go and jump in the crowd, or do any of that kind of stuff. He went right over to Filppula and acknowledged the pass ... that’s why he’s our captain.’’
The Panthers made things interesting with goals by Scottie Upshall and Brandon Pirri in the final 65 seconds, but Tampa Bay managed to hold on.
“(Stamkos) is not going to miss from there,’’ said Florida coach Peter Horachek. “That’s his home right over there. That’s where he makes his living, right off that dot down there. Stamkos is maybe the best pure goal scorer in the league. He’s got an exceptional shot, gets it off quick, very accurate, very hard.”
Mired in a 3-8-2 slump, the Lightning allowed a goal only 1:44 into the game as an announced crowd of 18,324 groaned in disappointment. The NHL’s worst power play needed only 30 seconds to take advantage of Tom Pyatt’s hooking penalty, as Fleischmann scored from the slot.
Tampa Bay forged a 1-1 tie four minutes later when Filppula won a draw back to Sami Salo, who beat Ellis from the left point, but it took the Panthers only 12 seconds to regain the lead.
A neutral-zone turnover led to a scoring chance for Florida, and Bishop was victimized on the short side from a sharp angle below the left faceoff circle as rookie Quinton Howden registered his first NHL point.
Lightning defenseman Michael Kostka made it 2-2 with his first goal since Dec. 10, taking Teddy Purcell’s deft feed from the left corner and firing the puck past Ellis.
By finishing off a four-game sweep against their cross-state rivals by a combined margin of 21-10, the Lightning improved to 35-24-7, tying Montreal at 77 points with a game in hand on the idle Canadiens.
“There’s definitely urgency in this room,’’ said Callahan. “There has to be. We’re too close in the standings not to be. We knew Stammer was going to score — he had been getting a lot of chances. It’s nice not to be working on the (penalty-killing unit) for once when he’s firing those one-timers.’’