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How Lightning escaped Sunrise taking 2 huge points from the Panthers

SUNRISE — The Lightning won’t apologize for the way they escaped Amerant Bank Arena with two points Saturday night, especially on the road against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Lightning need every point they can get at this time of the year, desperate to secure a playoff berth with just 15 regular-season games remaining.

Their games with the cross-state rival Panthers always have their own juice. They’re exciting, physical, and tests in survival.

And if the Lightning have another deep postseason run in them, they likely will have to will themselves to a win like their 5-3 victory Saturday.

“We were put in some tough situations to get ourselves out and protect a lead and we did it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You can look at those challenges and say, ‘Boys, you passed.’ Is that a recipe for success long term? No, but we will be in those situations again. And we did it against a really, really good hockey team.”

The Lightning ran out to a 4-0 lead seven minutes into the second period, but allowed the Panthers back into the game with a turnstile into the penalty box, giving Florida more than 11 minutes on the man advantage, leaving goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to face a barrage of shots.

Vasilevskiy was in Conn Smythe form, stopping 47 of 50. The Panthers outshot the Lightning 50-16 on the night and held a 38-5 shot advantage in the final two periods.

The win was the Lightning’s third straight — all against teams currently holding playoff positions in the East. The Panthers (45-19-4, 94 points) took back-to-back regulation losses for the first time in nearly three months. The Lightning (36-25-6, 78 points) sit in the first wild-card playoff position, four points ahead of Detroit in the second spot, with four more teams within six points of the Red Wings.

“We knew this stretch was going to be tough,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re playing some really good teams and we found a way to get some huge points for us in the standings. So we’ve just got to keep going here.”

A strong start

Stamkos has been quiet of late, but he can score in bunches when he starts heating up.

After notching the game-winner against the Rangers on Thursday, Stamkos put the Lightning up 1-0 just 20 seconds in Saturday. Leading a 2-on-1 breakaway, Stamkos tried to pass to Brandon Hagel across the slot, but the puck hit Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour’s skate and slid past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Up 3-0 in the second, Stamkos struck again, this time on the power play with a one-timer from the left dot.

Along with it being Stamkos’ first multi-goal game since Jan. 13, he continued to climb the all-time scoring list. His second goal was his 542nd, passing Stan Mikita for 33rd; it was his 209th career power-play goal, which tied him with Gordie Howe for most with one team (Detroit).

Vasilevskiy in playoff form

Stamkos said he could tell that Vasilevskiy was seeing the puck well early, stopping the first 16 shots he faced.

Seven Panther power plays put added stress on Vasilevskiy, and he withstood constant pressure throughout the final two periods. Vasilevskiy stopped 35 of 38 shots in the second and third periods, and made 27 stops on 28 shots in 5-on-5 play.

“He was in a zone tonight, you could tell,” Stamkos said. “When he’s picking up those deflected shots like he was tonight early and making those reaction saves, that’s when you can tell really early that he’s on top of his game.”

Perhaps his best save came with Tampa Bay clinging to a one-goal lead in a 5-on-6 situation in the third period. Vasilevskiy extended from one post to the other to seal off an open net, fighting off Aleksander Barkov’s shot with his blocker with 2:19 remaining.

A typical slugfest

The Panthers aren’t as much the track meet team they were a few seasons ago. They’ve added more brute force, a big reason why they willed their way to the Stanley Cup final last season.

Each time these teams get together, it usually gets testy. Saturday was no different. The teams combined for 19 penalties, including one match penalty for an illegal hit to the head that erased a Florida goal early in the second, two misconduct penalties and three roughing calls.

Mikey Eyssimont and Brandon Hagel did their best to needle the Panthers, and at one point, Hagel and Matthew Tkachuk were jawing at each other across the benches.

At least three times, large scrums broke out after the whistle with all 10 skaters tangled up and sticks, gloves and helmets strewn all over the ice. At least twice, Lightning newcomer Matt Dumba was in the middle of the fray.

“There’s no love lost,” Stamkos said. “Two very talented teams, teams that have guys that can stir the pot and it’s good for the game.”

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