After all their victories, a Presidents Cup season and record-breaking attack, an upgraded lineup and their first playoff series win in 26 years, the Florida Panthers were exactly where they were last year against the Tampa Bay Lightning: They went down 2-0 in the playoffs after sweeping the ice on the the home.
The only difference, after Tampa beat the Bell 2-1 Thursday in Sunrise, Florida, is that this is the second round of the National Hockey League playoffs, not the first. It looks like it will be as much as the Panthers get in the Stanley Cup.
In 82 regular season games — 58 of them won — the highest-scoring team in the NHL salary cap era scored just under two goals three times. They’ve done it twice in three days against Lightning, who don’t have the talent they’ve boasted during their last two Stanley Cup wins but have more playoff experience than the Panthers.
“It’s amazing what this group can continue to fight through,” said Lightning captain Stephen Stamkos. “Obviously, we knew they were going to push. And they pushed, they played a great game. But we bowed, we didn’t break.
“You want to win every game and come on the road with that mentality. You want to steal one for sure; that’s definitely the mindset. But when you get that first question, we talked about, ‘Let’s get greedy here.’ We did that last year – we came in and won the first two. Not Someone is taking a breath now. We’ve done our job here in an environment that is, of course, difficult to win in. (But) let’s stay focused. Let’s regroup, let’s make some players healthier, but let’s keep on your feet.”
Even just a split from Tampa’s next two games should allow Lightning to advance to another Eastern Conference final because a team that has won nine straight playoff series is unlikely to lose three in a row if they advance 3-1.
The third game is Sunday afternoon.
Even with their stars somewhere on the dark side of the moon, the Panthers might have done enough to win Game 2, outpacing Lightning 37-29. But at the last minute, the Panthers also did enough to lose.
By contrast, lightning is simply not self-defeating. It’s always hard to wreck Lightning, with a winning culture that makes players as hungry for the third episode of the Stanley Cup as they were the first time around. They don’t explode, which the Panthers did in the last seconds on Thursday.
Deep in his territory and with the clock ticking, Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling threw the disc around planks in traffic. Nikita Kucherov beat Noel Acchiari to keep her in the blue streak. With a second chance to clear the ball, Panther forward Eto’o Lostarinen was unable to get past Ondrej Balat at this point. And when the ball was pushed back behind the net to Kucherov, Panther defender Mackenzie Weger ditched the front of the goal, leaving Ross Colton’s unchallenged shot buried 3.8 seconds before the end of Kucherov’s superb cross pass.
“We had the disc behind our net,” Florida coach Andrew Brunot summed up. “We were fine. They didn’t really force us. We threw it away, then we threw it away again. We lost a fight and then got chased behind the net. So I think for a game where all the matches were structurally very good, the last 20 seconds was the cost to us tonight.
“They are a team that doesn’t make any (faults). We played 59 minutes 40 seconds and had very few limited errors and was kind of hanging in the game and ran very well. I thought we had more energy, more urgency. I thought we played our game. All night long. And just those 20 seconds… it stings.”
Florida goalkeeper Sergey Bobrovsky, who crafted what looked like a rescue glove on bales four minutes before the end of the game, had no time to push and prevented Colton from firing the ball into the roof of the net.
“Everyone is frustrated, you know?” Bobrovsky said. “It was quiet (in the room) but all the players are professionals. Everyone understands that the next match is going to be big. We can make a difference in the future, not in the past, you know? We just have to stay together again and keep working.”
After his regular season of 115 points, Florida forward Jonathan Huberdeau scored one goal and three assists in eight playoff games. Another Tiger star, Alexander Barkov, has two goals. Sam Reinhart, who had 82 points in the regular season, has three points in the playoffs.
Until this month, Reinhart, 26, had never played a playoff. Barkoff, 26, and Huberdeau, 28, only played 24 each. This lack of Stanley Cup experience partly explains their struggle to score as they did in the regular season. But nothing could explain Florida’s strength game, which was the NHL’s fifth-best game during the regular season, as the playoffs began 0-for-25. It was 0-for-4 on Thursday, when Tampa’s strong game became 1-on-3.
In eight playoff games, the Panthers won 11–0 on special teams.
“They’re putting pressure on her,” Brunette said. “It’s really unbelievable, but I loved the urgency (in the power game). We had a few looks. I thought it was better. It was a great opportunity to cash in there.”
Florida’s 25th loser play began with 3:23 left in the third inning when Stamkos received a penalty, and he was lucky not to be rated as a second minor to catch the disc for the whistle. Tampa goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevsky made two difficult saves to keep the game tied 1-1.
Just a reminder
And Lightning does so without striker Brayden Point, who missed his second game in a row after picking up a hip or thigh injury in Game Seven of his first-round win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Is there a better scorer in playoff hockey than a decorated Corey Berry?
Fiercely competitive but slow to progress, the 37-year-old looked like he was done when the Anaheim Ducks bought his contract three years ago. But all Perry has done in the past two seasons is go to the Stanley Cup Finals with the Dallas Stars and the Montreal Canadiens.
Perry’s opening game Thursday goal, fueled perfectly by Stamkos, was his fourth in nine playoff games for the Lightning. Perry has more goals than Huberdeau and Barkoff combined. He also played 176 playoff matches.
He played Game 2 with stitches near his right eye after taking himself to warm up.
“It was my shot that hit the crossbar and came back and I couldn’t react fast enough,” Perry said, describing the incident as a first for him. “Get a few minutes to warm up and go away.”