TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — If the Tampa Bay Lightning are tenacious enough to sneak into the playoffs, it’ll be because of their youngsters.
Rookie Adam Erne scored twice and veteran Ondrej Palat added a power-play goal and two assists as the Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars 6-3 on Sunday night.
Rookie Brayden Point scored the go-ahead goal in the third period to break a 2-2 tie.
“We have to do everything to stay (in the playoff hunt),” Erne said. “We want to contribute. We don’t just want to be passengers on our run here. We consider ourselves a part of this team now, and we’re desperate to win these games because we know each of these last games are must wins.”
Braydon Coburn and Anton Stralman also had goals for Tampa Bay. Backup Peter Budaj made 23 saves to help the Lightning move within three points of the idle Ottawa Senators, who hold the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Lightning have a key road game Tuesday, traveling to Boston, which is four points ahead of Tampa Bay.
“All I know is we need to be 1-0 on Tuesday,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, addressing his team’s upcoming three road games in four days.
Cooper, however, realizes just how crucial his rookies’ play has been for the Lightning down the stretch, as well as filling in for injured veterans all season. Four rookies — Erne, Point, Yanni Gourde and Jake Dotchin — contributed to the scoring Sunday night, and those four have combined for 21 goals and 30 assists, all as in-season call-ups.
“We’ve needed them, just in different ways,” Cooper said of the rookies. “We’re happy for Adam Erne, who has been chipping away, chipping away, chipping away and doesn’t have any points to show for it. He deserved his breaks tonight.”
Gemel Smith, Jason Spezza and Brett Ritchie scored for Dallas, and Esa Lindell assisted on all three goals.
Erne opened up the scoring at 11:47 in the first. Erne, who had just one goal entering the game and hadn’t scored since March 3, added a power-play goal in the third.
Dallas answered quickly in the second with Smith’s goal less than two minutes into the period.
Smith nearly had a short-handed goal after that, but it was overturned on an offsides call after a Lightning challenge and official review. Dallas did take the lead at 10:57 in the second when Spezza scored his 14th of the season. Spezza also assisted on Smith’s goal.
With just 18 seconds left in the second, Tampa Bay tied it on Coburn’s goal with assists from Stralman and Palat, who has 32 assists this season.
Point’s tiebreaking goal was his 14th of the season, while Palat’s power-play goal was his 17th.
“They’re really coming in and contributing all over the ice,” Stralman said, “and they get rewarded for it. It shows the depth of our organization.”
Ritchie scored Dallas’ third goal late in the third. Stralman had an empty-netter with 2 seconds remaining.
In the end, all Cooper had to do was relay the obvious to his young team.
“(The poorly played second half) comes down to our season,” Cooper said, “and that was the discussion in the (locker) room: Do you want to give yourself a chance to play past next Sunday? And, it was, if you don’t want to, play the way you did in the second — if you do, play the way we did in the third.”
NOTES: Tampa Bay C Steven Stamkos, out since right knee surgery in November, did not play Sunday and remains day to day. … Lightning C Tyler Johnson returned Sunday after sitting out 11 games with a lower-body injury. … Lightning D Jason Garrison returned after missing four games due to a lower-body injury. Garrison would later leave during the second intermission with another lower-body injury. … Stars LW Patrick Sharp missed his fifth game with a hip injury. … Stars LW Antoine Roussel missed his 15th game with an upper-body injury.
Stars: Wrap up the season with a three-game homestand, beginning with Arizona on Tuesday.
Lightning: Begin a three-game road trip, starting with a key game at Boston on Tuesday.