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TAMPA — The Lightning needed a win Thursday night against the Blue Jackets.
Not because they were facing a team that has flared into a rival over the past two years. And not because they were coming off a loss Tuesday to the Hurricanes, whom they are fighting for the top spot in the Central Division.
It was because of who was in goal for them: backup Curtis McElhinney.
McElhinney, 37, has started 10 games this season, with a 4-5-1 record after Thursday’s 3-1 win. Among goaltenders who have played at least as many games, his save percentage (.872) was the second worst in the league entering Friday, just ahead of Ottawa’s Marcus Hogberg (.866).
McElhinney especially needed a win after his previous start, in Nashville on April 13, a 7-2 loss. The seven goals were the most he had given up since surrendering eight against Winnipeg on March 8, 2019, when he played for the Hurricanes.
“It felt great,” he said after Thursday’s victory. “Obviously it’s been a little up and down the last couple of games for us and trying to find our groove. Nice for me to get in there and get a win for the team, and obviously a big win for us moving forward.”
McElhinney said that after the Predators game, he needed a better performance.
“Seven goals against is never a game you want to experience as a goalie,” he said. “It was a tough game in Nashville, so a nice way to bounce back and come from behind to pull (a win) out.”
The Lightning trailed the Blue Jackets 1-0 after the first period.
McElhinney needed a spark. At the beginning of the season, he was on the COVID-19 protocol list for two weeks. His first start of the year was a win, 4-1 against the Predators. Then things got rough.
His next start was a 6-4 loss to the Panthers in which he said “self-inflicted” wounds were to blame. That was followed by a 3-1 win against the Hurricanes. Then came three straight losses: 4-3 to the Blackhawks in a shootout, a game in which he was especially sharp in overtime; 6-4 to the Red Wings, a game in which his teammates weren’t much help in a sloppy night; then 4-1 to the Predators on a night of too many breakaways.
A 5-3 win against Florida was followed by two more losses: 3-1 to the Blue Jackets, with two of the Lightning’s best defensemen out, and then April 13 to the Predators, in which his teammates “gave ‘Mac’ zero help,” coach Jon Cooper said.
On Thursday, McElhinney made 24 saves for his second-best effort of the season, behind his 3-1 win at Carolina, when he had 31 saves on 32 shots.
“He played well,” Cooper said. “He hasn’t gotten a lot of (playing) time. … He was in control of his game, and we’re down 1-0, we give up (a) breakaway and (he) makes a huge save for us to keep it a one-goal game, and you need that from a goaltender.”
Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta, who has missed 11 games with a lower-body injury, was a full participant at Friday afternoon’s practice. He skated in a defenseman pairing with rookie Cal Foote.
Rutta said he has been skating for two days and is hopeful he’ll be able to see game action before the end of the regular season (nine games remain).
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