Jacksonville Sports Day

NHL: Palat Nets Winner as Lightning Slip Past Panthers

Ondrej Palat scored in the final minutes and the Tampa Bay Lightning continued to charge up the Eastern Conference standings.

Palat tipped in an Andrej Sustr shot with 2:23 left to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night to complete a comeback from down two goals.

“I’m just playing hard, playing my game and just waiting for one to go in and today I get that lucky bounce on a tip so I’m happy,” said Palat, who collected his 200th career point.

The Lightning improved to 10-2-3 in the past 15 games to remain in contention for the final playoff spot, three points behind Toronto.

Andrei Vasilevskiy finished with 32 saves to improve to 5-0-1 in his past six starts. Nikita Kucherov scored on the power play and Yanni Gourde had a short-handed goal.

“There was a lot of fight in the boys,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We felt we were playing well enough. It was, keep working the way we were and things will pay off and they eventually did.”

Jaromir Jagr and Mark Pysyk scored for Florida. James Reimer stopped 31 shots as the Panthers fell to 1-7-1 in the past nine games.

The Panthers jumped out to a two-goal lead with goals by Jagr and Pysyk less than three minutes apart late in the first period.

Ten seconds after a Florida power play expired, a puck skidded off to the side, where Jagr was able to chip the puck with his long reach and the puck hit the far post and caromed in to the net at 16:32.

In the final minute of the first period, Pysyk sent a shot from the center point and appeared to deflect in front and found the top far corner with 47 seconds remaining.

“First period we played great and got a two-goal lead,” Florida forward Jussi Jokinen said. “You have to figure out a way to get a win. It’s tough right now.”

Tampa Bay found a boost of energy in the second period, fueled by a power play chance generated when Alex Petrovic took a roughing penalty and was ejected after he was given a game misconduct. On the ensuing man advantage, Kucherov delivered a one-timer from the right circle off a feed from Victor Hedman at 3:43.

As the intensity started to ramp up, the Lightning pulled even while killing a penalty on a strong effort by Gourde, who fought his way up ice and with Vincent Trocheck draped on his back, pushed forward and slipped a shot under the pads of Reimer at 10:11 for his first career NHL goal.

“It’s just a surreal moment, something you dream of all your childhood,” said Gourde, who is the fourth player in franchise history to score his first career goal short-handed. “I knew (Trocheck) was there the whole way, I was just trying to get inside position and was trying to get a shot off.”

Tampa Bay then survived a 56-second five-on-three chance for Florida midway through the period to keep the score tied heading to the third period, when both teams had their chances with a combined 27 shots on goal before the Lightning the late winner.

“It was a great hockey game, great for the state of Florida,” Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe said. “I thought that was as close to a playoff game as you’ll get in the regular season. It’s a tough one to lose because our guys worked so hard, especially when some of our guys went down with injuries.”

NOTES: Tampa Bay recalled C Matthew Peca from Syracuse of the American Hockey League with Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette all out with leg injuries. … C Greg McKegg, who was claimed off waivers from Florida by the Lightning on Feb. 27, was in the lineup against his former team after being scratched the previous two games. … Florida G James Reimer started on consecutive nights for the first time this season. … The Panthers scratched LW Shawn Thornton, D Jakub Kindl, C Michael Sgarbossa and G Robert Luongo. … Tampa Bay G Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed more than one goal for just the second time in the past six starts since Ben Bishop was traded to Los Angeles. … Florida, which played at home on Friday, had travel issues and flew to Tampa on Saturday morning. … RW Nikita Kucherov set a career high with 31 goals. … Florida played the final two periods with four defensemen after Aaron Ekblad (upper body) and Alex Petrovic (ejection) left in the second period. Denis Malgin (upper body) was also injured in the second period and did not return. … According to Elias Sports Bureau, Yanni Gourde is the fourth player in Lightning history to score their first career goal short-handed, joining Aaron Gavey, Sami Helenius and Eric Perrin, the last to do so on Nov. 2, 2006.

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