It looked like the Panthers were going to lose another game on Tampa Bay ice Saturday night before Aaron Ekblad changed the dynamic.
Florida, which trailed for big chunks of the final period, tied the score on a 55-foot blast from Ekblad with just 37.9 seconds left before beating the Lightning 5-4 in a shootout.
The Panthers hadn’t won in Tampa since 2013 — a run of four consecutive losses. The rivals, who had their fair share of skirmishes during the 65-plus-minute game, square off again Monday in Sunrise.
“That was just awesome,” Ekblad said.
“Guys are excited after a win like that. Confidence is what it’s all about. It’s a good rivalry, the Battle of Florida. Sometimes that gets overlooked.”
The teams were tied at 3 after a wild session early in the second period when they alternated goals on two occasions.
The first one, which gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead 1:02 into the period, came when Roberto Luongo caught something on his skate trying to slide into position.
Luongo landed on his backside and watched helplessly as Vladislav Namestinikov put the puck in the back of the net.
“I caught an edge and couldn’t really recover,” Luongo said. “As I was going down, I saw the guy with the puck. I’ve had a lot of [embarassing] goals, but this one is right up there. You guys are going to see it a lot.”
While Luongo didn’t have his best night in making 24 saves, he did make some great ones in keeping the Panthers in it.
“This was definitely one of the craziest games I’ve ever played,” Luongo said.
“It was a good character win for the boys. We stuck with it, tied it at the end. It’s nice to be rewarded.”
In overtime, Steven Stamkos was pulled down driving the net by Dave Bolland and was awarded a penalty shot. Luongo stopped that and gave the Panthers another shot.
Brandon Pirri led off the shootout with a goal on old pal Ben Bishop, and that was all Florida needed as Luongo stopped three Tampa Bay shooters to send the Panthers south with a victory.
“I played Bishop a lot in the minors, so it was kind of a thinking match,” said Pirri, who beat Bishop in the second period on a penalty shot of his own to give Florida a 3-2 lead.
“We practice these all the time. When I got here, Luongo told me he was bad at this. But since I've been here, he stops more than he lets in. He gives us a chance every night.''
The Panthers took a 1-0 lead on a Jussi Jokinen goal, as he tapped in a loose puck off a Vincent Trocheck shot.
Florida tied the score at 2 when Nick Bjugstad blew through the Tampa Bay defense and beat Bishop with a sharp wrister.
After Pirri’s goal, the Panthers didn’t get another until Ekblad wound up and fired off a power-play face off.
Moments before, Pirri was robbed by an improbable blind kicksave by Bishop which would have tied it.
“It was exciting, a lot of open ice, a lot of chances,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We battled hard, very happy with the win obviously.”
▪ The Panthers played down a defenseman for much of Saturday’s game as Dmitry Kulikov was injured after being hit along the boards by J.T. Brown. Kulikov left the game after his lone shift of the second and didn’t come back. Kulikov had been nursing a sore ankle.
▪ Sasha Barkov once again skated with the Panthers before Saturday’s game but didn’t play. Barkov, who broke a bone in his hand on Oct. 22, could return Monday.