TAMPA — No perfect formula for winning exists in the NHL. But the Lightning's recipe on Thursday night whipped up the type of model coach Jon Cooper wants his team to be able to play.
Tampa Bay played tight defense, received solid goaltending and found a timely goal from one of the game's top game-breakers to beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1 in front of an announced crowd of 16,454 at The Forum.
Steven Stamkos notched the game winner late in the third period to break a tie, and Ben Bishop made 25 saves for his career-best fifth consecutive victory as the Lightning (5-2) won for the fifth time in the past six games.
“You have to be able to play different teams and I don't think you should change the way you play, so when you play a defensive team that is structured and has discipline like Minnesota, you have to be able to match that and that's what we have instilled with this team, is we have to be able to play like that,” Cooper said. “You will play high-flying teams, but you still have to play with that structure knowing that we can weather the storm and play D, but knowing we have enough talent ... to play offense. We are good enough that our chances are going to come in a 60-minute game and our guys can sniff them out.”
That's exactly what happened Thursday.
In a tight-checking, low-scoring tilt, Matt Carle threw a puck off the boards up the ice that a streaking Stamkos took in stride. He got behind Ryan Suter and lifted a quick wrist shot over Wild goalie Josh Harding, and the puck struck the bottom of the crossbar and dropped into the net with 5:04 left in the game. The 4-on-4 goal came 3:51 after the Wild tied the game.
“Tonight wasn't the prettiest win, but you have to find ways to win those games and we did tonight,” Stamkos said. “I think in years past maybe you find a way to lose that game.”
But Bishop found a way to keep Minnesota off the scoreboard for most of the game and nearly made Tyler Johnson's first-period power-play goal stand up. Bishop was particularly sharp in the second period when he stopped all 13 Wild shots, highlighted by a two-minute flurry midway through the period.
During a span of six seconds, Marco Scandella had a pair of shots, followed by rebound chances from Jared Spurgeon and finally Mikko Koivu before Bishop covered the loose puck as it squirted into the crease at 9:34. Less than 60 seconds later, Bishop stopped Dany Heatley in close before robbing Mikael Granlund's rebound opportunity at 10:20.
“You just try to stop the puck,” Bishop said. “You don't really think out there. You just try to see the puck, find it and get whatever you can in front of it.”
Harding, meanwhile, kept the Wild's deficit at one goal and left the Lightning looking in disbelief as Alex Killorn intercepted a puck in the neutral zone and led a 2-on-0 rush with Stamkos on his right. Killorn dished the puck the Stamkos, who was stopped by Harding at 16:26, leaving Killorn and Stamkos still discussing the play on the bench while shaking their heads.
That failed chance nearly proved costly when Koivu tied the game with 8:55 left to play in the third — one of two shots the Wild had in the period — Stamkos scored late.
“I know (Stamkos) wants the puck with a lot of speed, and I saw the defenseman kind of gapped up on him, so I put (the puck) into an area where I thought he could skate into it and it obviously worked out almost perfectly,” Carle said. “I didn't think it would work out that well, but anytime you can put Stammer into a situation like that, usually he buries it.”
Sami Salo sealed the win with a 141-foot shot into an empty net with 18 seconds left.
“They were almost waiting for us to make mistakes and we just didn't make too many mistakes,” Bishop said. “That's a big win for our team.”