SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers could have a long summer to reflect on the last 15 seconds of their 2-1 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at FLA Live Arena on Thursday.
Errors that ended with Ross Colton scoring the game-winning goal with 3.8 seconds left is the kind that could haunt a team, but the Panthers have little time to wallow as they look to turn the page and get back into the best-of-7 series of Game 3 at Tampa Bay on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET; TNT, SN, TVAS).
“It’s not easy,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “It’s one of those things that hurts, obviously, but it’s a roller coaster ride that we’re on and the sun will come up. Wake up and keep playing like we’re playing. I really liked it our game. I liked most of our game Game 1.
“Just a learning experience again against a team that doesn’t give you too many openings, and we kind of gave one there.”
[RELATED: Complete Panthers vs. Lightning series coverage]
Similar to their 4-1 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday, the Lightning demonstrated their championship pedigree by finding a way to win when the Panthers couldn’t. After Florida took a 1-0 lead and controlled the game for most of the first two periods, Tampa Bay responded by scoring four unanswered goals, including three in the third period.
On Thursday, the Lightning took a 1-0 lead when Corey Perry scored a power-play goal at 12:06 of the first period, but the Panthers kept pushing and were eventually rewarded with Eetu Luostarinentying goal with 1:53 to go in the second period.
Riding the momentum of that goal, Florida had a chance to take the lead when Nikita Kucherov was called for tripping with 47 seconds left in the second, but he couldn’t convert on the ensuing power play.
Then a trigger penalty on Steven Stamkos with 3:23 left in the third period, the Panthers have another chance to play on the power play, but again failed to convert.
Florida finished the game with a power play of 0 for 4 and a record of 0 for 25 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s really amazing,” Brunette said. “But I liked the urgency. We had a few looks. I thought it was better and it was a great opportunity to capitalize there.”
Video: Colton’s late goal lifts Lightning in Game 2 win
Despite the missed opportunities, the match seemed destined for extra time until Colton’s superb goal.
Even after the Lightning defender John Rutta carried the puck following a turnover in the neutral zone by MacKenzie Weegar with 15 seconds left, the Panthers had two chances to clear the puck.
First, defender Gustav Forsling couldn’t get past Kucherov along the right boards. Then Luostarinen lost the puck when he had the opportunity to clear it near the blue line, allowing Ondrej Palat to keep it in the right place and send it deep.
“We just have to get the puck out,” Luostarinen said. “It can’t happen there.”
As time ticked away, Kucherov collected the puck behind the net as Forsling chased him from behind. But Weegar also decided to retreat to the opposite side of the net, leaving Colton unguarded below the left circle.
After taking a quick look over his left shoulder, Kucherov saw Colton skating alone and delivered a deft backhand pass in front.
“He has eyes in the back of his head, as you can see, because I didn’t even know he knew I was there,” Colton said. “He packed it for me.”
With the puck a little on the edge, Colton catches Kucherov’s pass over the right shoulder of Sergei Bobrovskyleaving the Panthers in disbelief and silencing the crowd at the FLA Live Arena.
“It’s a bit difficult,” Bobrovsky said. “[Kucherov] was behind the net, right? Just behind. So he made a good pass and it was a good shot.”
It was another costly playoff lesson for the Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL team with the best regular season record but are still trying to figure out how to win in the playoffs against the Lightning. .
“I loved our game,” Brunette said. “I thought we were in a great position. I controlled the puck with 20 seconds left and just didn’t make it. I made some kind of fatal mistake.”
Whether that will prove fatal for the Panthers’ season remains to be seen, but they now face a familiar situation they hoped to avoid repeating.
In the first round last season, Tampa Bay won the first two games of the series on the road before eliminating Florida in six games.
“[The locker room] was quiet, but all the guys are pro,” Bobrovsky said. “Everyone understands that the next game is important. We can make a difference in the future, not in the past, and that’s it. So we have to stick together and keep working.”
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