Lightning reveal late grit in overcoming Avalanche

Ryan Callahan scores past Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov in Saturday night's shootout.

Mike Carlson/AP

TAMPA, Fla. — The storylines were stopped. The momentum was mashed. The Tampa Bay Lightning, just 6.8 seconds from another regulation victory, were forced to fight from their heels and somehow kick the Colorado Avalanche between the eyes.

And that’s what happened. They yelled a loud "No!" that melted the snowmen and revealed hot heart inside, this a recovery job that made the sting of Nathan MacKinnon’s late third-period goal to tie the score at two less of a drag.

"It’s nice to get the win," said Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop, who made two saves in the shootout to make Tampa Bay’s 3-2 victory Saturday at Amalie Arena possible. "Whenever you lose a win like that with six seconds left, to come back and kill off that power play in overtime and then get the shootout win, it’s nice. Otherwise, it would have been a very frustrated group in here."

Until MacKinnon slipped the puck past Bishop’s right skate, until the young center celebrated near the glass as teammates swarmed him like flies on a piece of fruit, the latest narrative was signed, stamped and waiting to be delivered. This would have been another victory for the Lightning in which a third-period goal, this one from defenseman Anton Stralman, placed them on top for good. This would have been another victory for the Lightning in which they recovered in the final period after being outshot 20-9 in the second. This would have been another victory for the Lightning in which late-game moxie overcame a mid-game malaise.

Instead, their heart was ripped out.

Instead, they were forced to make their soul whole once more, all while Mr. Momentum kicked up his feet on Colorado’s bench.

"It shows good character, I think," Stralman said. "It’s always tough when you let in a goal that late and try to rebound quick. You can’t really think about it much, but it hurts when it happens. But I think we responded well. We played overtime. We had some chances. They had some chances. In the end, we pulled it off in a shootout."

The Lightning are at the point of their season where so much has passed, yet so much more stands ahead in their campaign to not only reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season but also win a postseason round for the first time since 2011. This result will be forgotten in the coming weeks, when more drama is created and greater knowledge is gained in the march to April.

But don’t be eager to brush it away so quickly. Moments like Saturday show more about Tampa Bay’s guts than a 7-1 laugher over the Montreal Canadiens or even a 3-2 sleep walk over the Edmonton Oilers. This victory required character as well as charisma, grit in overtime and in the shootout as well as composure in regulation.   

Lightning 3, Avalanche 2 (SO)

Exhibit A: With 4:36 gone in overtime, center Steven Stamkos was called for hooking, forcing Bishop to stand firm in the closing seconds despite pressure.

Exhibit B: After winger Ryan Callahan scored on Semyon Varlamov, giving the Lightning a 2-1 edge in the shootout, Bishop leaned right and erased the angle from winger Alex Tanguay, whose shot ricocheted off Bishop’s stick, allowing Tampa Bay to clinch its 18th home victory.

"You need your goalie to win," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It doesn’t matter what team you’re playing on. And for the first 30 minutes, we probably didn’t need him a whole ton. And in the last three minutes, clearly we needed him."

As Bishop said afterward, the Avalanche’s point gained was harmless, given how Colorado resides in the Western Conference and how it is no direct threat to Tampa Bay’s playoff aspirations. So the result was more about what the Lightning showed than what they surrendered, it was more about what they did after they picked themselves off the asphalt than that elbow to the gut late in the third period that placed them there to begin.

There was no overtime collapse. There was no falter when wavering would have been excused. There was no retreat, only recovery.

"You’ve got to regroup pretty quickly," Callahan said. "We have enough character on that bench to do that. We realize that we get unlucky, and they score with six seconds left, and there’s still a point up for grabs. We had to go to overtime. That (overtime) kill was absolutely huge."

Absolutely interesting, too.

Everything Tampa Bay did to grind out the victory bodes well for the future. The Lightning, still evolving, continue to show traits that will enhance their chances of a deep postseason run. They stumbled then soared. They tripped then topped an inspired opponent. They slipped but did enough to secure the victory.

Sometimes, winning requires a rewrite of the script. The Lightning adjusted, and they reached their desired result. Again.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.