TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Vincent Lecavalier picked a good time to pull out of a scoring slump.
The Tampa Bay star had two goals and as assist, and Sean Burke stopped 29 shots in his first start since returning from a broken finger, leading the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning to a 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Monday night.
Lecavalier ended a stretch of six consecutive games without a goal, bolstering the Lightning’s push for a playoff spot.
“It’s good to boost your confidence a little bit. The net was getting really small,” Lecavalier said. “But the most important thing, we got that win.”
The victory lifted the Lightning into a tie with idle Montreal for seventh place in the Eastern Conference and also put a crimp in Florida’s chances of sneaking into the eighth—and final—playoff position.
The Panthers, who won 11 of 13 to climb into the race, trail the Lightning and Canadiens by eight points with seven games remaining. Tampa Bay (85 points) also bolstered its advantage over ninth-place Atlanta, which had 78 points— one ahead of Florida and Toronto—following its loss at Ottawa.
“This is a sprint right now. That’s the way we’re approaching it,” Lightning coach John Tortorella said. “By no means are we set. Too many crazy things happen as far as this race is concerned.”
The Panthers won five of six previous meetings with the Lightning, including a pair of overtime victories and a 4-2 win at home on Saturday. This time, they fell behind 2-0 in the first period and never fully recovered.
Fredrik Modin’s 30th goal got the Lightning off to a quick start, and Lecavalier added his 33rd on a nifty move around goalie Roberto Luongo for a two-goal lead that Burke was able to protect in his first start since March 13.
The 39-year-old goalie was sidelined for more than two weeks with a broken finger. He returned in relief of John Grahame during the second period of Saturday night’s loss to the Panthers and stopped all nine shots he faced.
“There was definitely a focus on what we needed to do for the obvious reasons,” Burke said. “I think if we lose this game, we all realize that we put ourselves in a bad spot for the rest of the way.”
The Panthers trimmed their deficit to 2-1 on Nathan Horton’s goal with 4:34 remaining in the second and nearly tied it when Jonathan Sim’s shot deflected off Burke’s pad into the net just after time expired in the period.
Lecavalier put the game away in the third, scoring his 34th goal to set a career high on a rebound shot that deflected off Florida’s Lucas Krajicek before skipping into the net with 4:23 left. He added an assist on Ruslan Fedotenko’s empty-net goal that made it 4-1.
Luongo, who finished with 26 saves, said Tampa Bay’s strong start was the difference. Although both teams wound up taking 30 shots, the Lightning held a 14-5 advantage in the opening period.
“They came out strong in the first and pretty much sealed the game right there,” Luongo said. “They’re not the Stanley Cup champions for nothing. They know how to play, especially with the lead.”
Tampa Bay’s Brad Richards had an assist on Modin’s goal, extending his point streak to a franchise-record nine games. Martin St. Louis had an eight-game streak earlier this season. … Panthers C Jozef Stumpel has missed three games with a left hip injury. … Lightning D Pavel Kubina missed his third consecutive game with a lower body injury. … Lightning D Dan Boyle (ankle) returned after missing three games. … With 30 goals, Modin is two shy of his career high.