SUNRISE — Left by many to be nothing more than fodder for teams to pass on the way up the standings when Steven Stamkos went down to injury, the Lightning instead are riding into the three-day Christmas break with a five-game winning streak.
Captain Marty St. Louis has been a major catalyst to the charge, picking up a goal and two assists on Monday to lead the way to a 6-1 rout of the Florida Panthers in front of an announced crowd of 15,942 at BB&T Center.
Tampa Bay has won all three meetings with Florida this season by a combined 16-6 score and improved to 6-0-1 in the past seven games at Florida.
Victor Hedman finished with two assists and was a plus-four, J.T. Brown scored twice for his first career multigoal goal while Valtteri Filppula had a goal and assist. Rookie Nikita Kucherov had a pair of assists while Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson also scored as the Lightning won a third consecutive game on the road. Matt Carle recorded his 200th career assist.
Ben Bishop won his fifth consecutive game, allowing fewer than two goals for the fifth game in a row, stopping 28 shots. Bishop allowed fewer than three goals for the fifth consecutive game to pick up his 20th victory of the season.
But it’s been St. Louis who has picked up the pace since Stamkos went down on Nov. 11 with a broken tibia. In the 20 games Tampa Bay has played without Stamkos, who was leading the league in goals and points at the time, the Lightning are 11-6-3 and head into the break second in the Atlantic Division, three points behind Boston.
“I think as a team, when 91 (Stamkos) went down, we kind of had that little sense of shock, we win a couple of games and then reality set in,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I think Marty went through a little bit of a funk during that time when Stammer was gone, but I don’t think we’ve had a better player on our team in the last eight games than 26 (St. Louis). He’s been the captain and he’s led the way and been outstanding for us. ... Marty has clearly put the team on his back a little bit here of late and it’s been great to see.’’
Since Dec. 5, when Tampa Bay was coming off consecutive shutout losses, St. Louis has six goals - including goals now in three consecutive games - and seven assists in 10 games. The captain has three multipoint efforts in that span, including a pair of three point efforts, and now has points in five consecutive games.
“You know you are counted on and you want to deliver,’’ St. Louis said of adding more responsibility since the Stamkos injury. “I felt everybody was going to be watching our team, everybody is going to be watching me and I definitely took it as a challenge. I know there is still a lot to do, but I’m glad the way we have responded as a team, I’m glad how I’ve responded personally and we want to keep pushing.’’
Tampa Bay really pushed the pace in the second period, which was spurred on by Killorn’s late first-period goal, which came 19 seconds after a gift goal scored by Florida when Matt Carle flubbed a clearing attempt on the penalty kill leading to Sean Bergenheim’s one-timer with 1:04 left to play in the first period.
“With their goal, it was a little fluky and one you would like to have back,’’ Killorn said. “But to get back so quick, especially at the end of the period to head back in to the locker room is pretty huge.
The Lightning took over from there, scoring three times in the opening 12:07 of the second period, with St. Louis getting a hand in all three goals, and drawing the penalty that led to Filppula’s 5-on-3 power play goal at 8:01. With the comfortable lead, the Lightning got a little sloppy in their own end, which forced Bishop to come up with some key saves to keep the three-goal lead, before a pair of Brown goals in the third period ensured the rout.
“I thought we really pushed the pace (in the second) and our defensemen were getting us the puck pretty quick, so we were quick upping it and to catch them on changes,’’ St. Louis said. “We were able to push the pace on gaps, so were hard to play against in the second and we took the game over.’’