SUNRISE, Fla. — Gatorade nearly wrecked the Tampa Bay Lightning’s climb to the top of the Atlantic Division.
Steven Stamkos, Anders Lindback and a core of exhausted defenseman made sure it did not.
Stamkos netted the game-winner in a shootout, while Lindback stopped 29 shots to defeat the Florida Panthers 4-3 on Sunday.
This meeting between division rivals did not have to be close.
Tampa Bay led 3-1 a little less than midway through the second period when Panthers winger Scottie Upshall took Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas out of the contest with a squirt of Gatorade.
“In my opinion, that’s very on the lines, but savvy move on their part,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “They ended up knocking out a defenseman out of the game for us. I guess good on them.”
While Gudas sat on the ice following a routine stoppage of play, Upshall sent a stream of sports drink at the defenseman from the Panthers’ bench. The feisty Czech defender lost his temper and slammed his stick over the boards.
Matt Carle said his defensive partner has a “short fuse.”
“I think some wires just kind of crossed and he snapped,” Carle said of Gudas. “It’s one of those learning experiences for a young guy.”
“Could you [understand the reaction] if I pulled a Gatorade bottle and squirted it in your face at you right now?” Cooper asked. “I don’t think you’d be happy about it. These guys are competitors, so if something is going to happen, naturally, a guy is going to react.”
Referees diffused the situation before it escalated further and escorted Gudas to the tunnel to the dressing room.
The rookie received a two-minute minor for slashing, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct. Upshall drew an unsportsmanlike conduct minor.
“Clearly there wasn’t going to be a penalty either way on what happened, and then all of a sudden he breaks his stick on the boards,” Cooper said. “Penalty? Yes. Ten? I could have argued that, but could live with it. You can’t even that up. It’s tough to lose a player in that situation.”
Even tougher because Tampa Bay found itself with just five defenseman, on the second half of a back-to-back games with what ultimately ended up being just more than 32 minutes left in Sunday’s contest.
Carle bore the brunt of the extra workload, logging 29:24 of ice time. Victor Hedman clocked 24:48.
Additionally, Tampa Bay’s defenseman found themselves switching sides with lefties on the right side, righties on the left, making adjustments just to compensate for Gudas’ early departure.
“It’s not like losing a forward where you go down from 12 to 11,” Carle said. “He’s a very important part of our team. It was tough to lose him there.”
Gudas, playing in just his 33rd NHL game, has been a key defensive player for Tampa Bay, working among their top four blue liners. He has averaged a little less than 20 minutes per game for the Lightning. He leads Tampa Bay defensemen with 40 hits and 25 blocked shots.
And, for a squad that’s been looking to get more from its blueliners on offense, Gudas even filled that need Sunday. His one-timer from the point just three minutes earlier put the Lightning up by two.
It is a goal that Tampa Bay ended up needing, as the Panthers took advantage of the Lightning’s depleted bench and rallied with goals by Nick Bjugstad and Brad Boyes in the first half of the third period.
Tampa Bay just had to bear down and just skate this one out.
“We were getting tired, especially our defense,” Cooper said. “There weren’t the whistles. It didn’t feel like there was a last TV timeout. We didn’t have a chance to rest. But I thought the boys handled it pretty well. They did what they had to do to pull this one out.”
Lindback preserved the tie with three saves in overtime and stopped another three of four in the shootout. Valtteri Filppula and Stamkos provided the goals Tampa Bay needed for the extra point.
The Lightning needed to put forth a little more effort than normal, but they now sit tied atop the Atlantic Division with 16 points.
“It’s probably the quietest 8-3 record in the league,” Stamkos said. “We like it that way.”