After all their wins, their Presidents’ Trophy season and record offense, improved roster and first playoff win in 26 years, the Florida Panthers are precisely where they were last year against the Tampa Lightning. Bay: Down 2-0 in the playoffs after being swept at home.
The only difference after Tampa’s 2-1 win Thursday in Sunrise, Fla., is that it’s the second round of the National Hockey League playoffs, not the first. It looks like it will be as far as the Panthers get in the Stanley Cup tournament.
In 82 regular-season games — including 58 wins — the NHL’s top-scoring team in the salary cap era has scored less than two goals only three times. They’ve done it twice in three days against the Lightning, who lack the talent they boasted of winning the last two Stanley Cups but have infinitely more playoff savvy than the Panthers.
“It’s just amazing what this group can keep fighting for,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Obviously we knew they were going to push. And they pushed, they had a great game. But we folded, we didn’t break up.
“You want to win every game and you 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 one, we talked, ‘Let’s be greedy here.’ We did that last year – we came in and won the first two. There’s no breath left now. We did our job here in a tough environment, obviously, to win. (But) let’s stay Let’s regroup, get some guys healthier, but keep our foot on the accelerator.
Even a simple separation of the next two games in Tampa should allow the Lightning to advance to another Eastern Conference Finals, because a team that has won nine consecutive playoff games is unlikely to lose three consecutive playoff games if she gets up 3-1.
Game 3 is Sunday afternoon.
Even with their stars somewhere on the dark side of the moon, the Panthers probably did enough to win Game 2, beating the Lightning 37-29. But in the final minute, the Panthers also did enough to lose.
In contrast, the Lightning just don’t fight. Battle-hardened, with a winning culture that makes players as eager for their third Stanley Cup ring as they were for their first, the Lightning are always tough to break. They don’t implode, which the Panthers did in the final seconds Thursday.
Deep in his zone and with the clock ticking, Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling tossed the puck around the boards into traffic. Nikita Kucherov beat Noel Acciari to keep him on the blue line. With a second chance to punt, Panthers forward Eetu Luostarinen was unable to get the puck past Ondrej Palat on point. And when the puck was pushed back behind the net to Kucherov, Panthers defenseman Mackenzie Weeger gave up the front of the goal, leaving Ross Colton with an uncontested close range shot which he buried with 3.8 seconds left after a sublime reverse pass from Kucherov.
“We had the puck behind our net,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “We were fine. They didn’t really force us. We threw it, then we threw it again. We lost a battle and then we continued behind the net. So I think for a game that was pretty well structured, it was the last 20 seconds that cost us tonight.
“It’s a team that makes no (mistakes). And we played 59 minutes and 40 seconds and had very few limited errors and we hung on to the game and did extremely well. I thought we had more energy, more urgency. I thought we had been playing our game all night. And just those 20 seconds. . . sting.
Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who made what looked like a life-saving glove save on Palat with four minutes left, didn’t have time to push and stop Colton from sending the puck into the roof of the net .
“Everyone is disappointed, you know?” says Bobrovsky. “It was quiet (in the room) but all the guys are pro. Everyone understands that the next game is important. We can make a difference in the future, not in the past, you know? We just have to stick together again and keep working.
After his 115-point regular season, Florida forward Jonathan Huberdeau has one goal and three assists in eight playoff games. The other Panthers star, Aleksander Barkov, has two goals. Sam Reinhart, who had 82 points in the regular season, has three in the playoffs.
Until this month, Reinhart, 26, had never played in a playoff game. Barkov, 26, and Huberdeau, 28, played just 24 apiece. This lack of Stanley Cup experience partly explains their difficulty scoring as they did in the coasting regular season. But nothing can explain a power play from Florida, which was fifth-best in the NHL during the regular season, starting the playoffs 0-for-25. It was 0 for 4 on Thursday, when Tampa’s power play went 1 for 3.
In eight playoff games, the Panthers were outscored 11-0 in special teams.
“They urge it,” Brunette said. “It’s really unbelievable, but I liked the urgency (on the power play). We had a few looks. I thought that was better. It was a great opportunity to capitalize there.
Florida’s failed 25th power play started with 3:23 remaining in the third period when Stamkos was assessed a tripping penalty and was lucky not to be given a minor second for picking up the puck for get a whistle. Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy made two tough saves on deflections to keep the game tied at 1-1.
JUST A REMINDER
The Lightning do it without top forward Brayden Point, who missed his second straight game after suffering a hip or groin injury in Game 7 of the first-round win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Is there a better depth scorer for playoff hockey than obnoxious Corey Perry?
The fiercely competitive but slow-moving 37-year-old looked like he was done when the Anaheim Ducks bought out his contract three years ago. But all Perry has done in the past two seasons is make the Stanley Cup Finals with the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens.
Perry’s first goal Thursday, on a perfect power-play pass from Stamkos, was his fourth goal in nine playoff games for the Lightning. Perry has more goals than Huberdeau and Barkov combined. He also played in 176 playoff games.
He played Game 2 with stitches near his right eye after getting hot during the warm-up.
“It was my own shot that hit the crossbar, came back and I couldn’t react quickly enough,” Perry said, describing the incident as a first for him. “Take a few minutes to warm up and let’s go.”
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