The much hoped-for-if-not-anticipated rivalry between the Sunshine State's two NHL teams has never really developed into anything meaningful for the simple reason that prior to now, there's never been a time in the team's combined history where they've had to battle each other for anything meaningful. But at this point in this season, the Lightning are pushing for a top seed in the playoffs and the Panthers are currently just on the outside of the race for a wildcard spot. While possibly lacking a little of the playoff-level intensity on display the last three games, this one had as much importance as maybe any Florida-Tampa Bay game ever.
"I think we got those two quick ones early and much like the Boston game, maybe, we thought it was going to be a little easier than it was. And I'll tell you, of all the teams, and we've played them all, that's one of the hardest teams we play against, by far." - Lightning head coach Jon Cooper
The Lightning got on the board first when Brenden Morrow scored at 5:49, aided by the fact that the Panthers let the puck slide into the zone uncontested in lieu of drawing a Too Many Men call. J.T. Brown was credited with the lone assist.
Just under two minutes later at 7:47, Tyler Johnson blasted a slapshot past Florida goalie Roberto Luongo on an assist from Ryan Callahan and it looked like the rout may be on.
Not so fast.
The first period ended with Tampa Bay up 2-0 but at 6:16 of the second, Florida solved Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy on a goal from Jussi Jokinen, who was assisted by Brad Boyes and Erik Gudbranson.
Just 18 seconds later, it was tied thanks to a goal from Brandon Pirri on an assist by Vincent Trocheck.
And less than two minutes later, at 8:14, the Panthers took the lead on a goal from Jonathan Huberdeau, with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr picking up assists.
At the end of two, the Lightning found themselves trailing 3-2.
"Well, it was pretty quiet to be honest. There wasn't much said. Everyone kind of knew what exactly was going through everyone's head. So we were pretty upset. I think we have a lot of guys on this team that have a lot of character. When you play like that, it really eats at you. Luckily for us we still had another 20 minutes to recoup that." - Tyler Johnson
They recouped the equalizer at 1:30 of the third when Nikita Kucherov scored on helpers from Andrej Sustr and Ondrej Palat.
Then they recouped the lead, posting the game winner at 17:32, when Callahan scored with help from Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos.
"Well, I don't think we had much success in the first half of the season coming back in the third period. Now, when we are down a goal it seems like the last few weeks we seem to have the confidence. We know we can fill the net up, we've done a great job of that this year." - Brenden Morrow
And what about the blow to the playoff hopes of our (dare I say it, be still my heart?) rivals?
"It is disappointing. We want to make the playoffs. We need those two points. We needed it tonight and it didn't happen. We can't do anything now about it, but just focus on our game and we have to come out stronger against Toronto." - Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau
The season-long six-game homestand concludes Thursday when the Lightning host the Nashville Predators.
- This was the third of four regular season games between the Panthers and Lightning, with Tampa Bay now holding a 2-1 edge in the series. They'll meet for the final time on April 4th in Sunrise.
- This was the Lightning's 30th win at home this season, a franchise record.
- This was also their 46th win of the season, equaling a franchise best reached previously in 2003-04, 2010-11 and 2013-14.
- The Lightning have won 12 consecutive home games, all in regulation, against division opponents. The last time a team put a streak like that together was during the 1984-85 season when the Philadelphia Flyers won 13 straight at home against Patrick Division rivals.
- The Lightning are now 18-3-3 within the Atlantic Division.
- It's not the way you would expect them to arrive at this stat but the Lightning are now 24-2-3 when leading after one period.
- They're also now 3-18-2 when trailing after two.
- The Lightning honored Nate and Carmen Johnson as the 38th Lightning Community Heroes of the season during the first period of tonight's game. The Johnson's, who received a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program, will donate the money to Bay Area Youth Track and Field, All Sports Community Services and three other non-profit organizations. For the past 28 years, the Johnson's have dedicated their lives to bringing hope and achievement to local youth by providing them an outlet to grow through track and field. They live and work in the neighborhood of Belmont Heights, an underserved area of Tampa Bay, and develop young athletes through their Bay Area Youth Track and Field Program started in 1986. They have helped develop two generations of leaders using track and field as a tool to cultivate youth goal setting, character development, self-esteem, and the desire to give back to their local community. Youth members that have gone through their track and field program have progressed to become college graduates, entrepreneurs, doctors, and even a Rhodes Scholar.