Opening the season at home has been a treat Lightning fans have enjoyed for the past several seasons. Winning those home openers has also been something the Lightning have spoiled their fans of—four straight home opener victories to be exact. This evening extended the streak to five as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers 2-1 (in the shootout). I have many thoughts about this one, folks.
First, the niceties. Mathieu Joseph made his NHL debut tonight and he was one of Tampa Bay’s most effective forwards along with his linemates Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn.
The first period of this game was slop from the Lightning. Within the first two minutes, both top lines missed on a variety of passes and struggled to control the puck. Florida pounced and capitalized 5:58 into the period as Jacob MacDonald scored his first career goal. Not much to decipher here, just a good shot that beat Vasilevskiy on the blocker side. Joseph tried to disrupt the shot but was too out of position to make a difference.
Florida dictated the pace of the game for large portions and should’ve had a multi-goal lead if it wasn’t for Andrei Vasilevskiy becoming the great wall after MacDonald’s goal. Plaguing the Lightning this evening were a mix of poor passing, poor decision making, overpassing when they had scoring opportunities, and misplaying the puck in all three zones. Whether it was rust or not, the Lightning were not the better team this evening.
They struggled to maintain any consistent offensive pressure unless they had a power-play. It wasn’t until the second period that Tampa Bay managed to find some offensive momentum. Their first power-play generated some promising looks but fanned shots (Nikita Kucherov, multiple times), bad passes, and losing puck battles negated much of the pressure Tampa Bay generated.
Tampa did outshoot Florida in the second period, 14-8, but were unable to capitalize on any of their chances. Add in the fact that Panthers’ starting goaltender Roberto Luongo left the game in the second period with a lower-body injury and Tampa Bay’s offensive struggles become more frustrating. The positive side of this was that Tampa Bay did control the second period. They didn’t score and they weren’t their normal selves, but they pushed play back toward Florida’s end and had some promising scoring chances.
The third period was a tale of two halves. The first half being penalty riddled and the second half showcasing a resurgence from the Lightning. Tampa Bay started the third period on the penalty kill after J.T. Miller took a bad slashing penalty at the end of the second. 2:42 into the third period, Miller took another slashing penalty (personally, I thought it was a weak call). 1:11 after Miller’s second penalty expired, Braydon Coburn was called for tripping. Three minutes after Coburn’s penalty, Paquette was called for interference. Paquette’s penalty was a bad one. As infuriating as the train to the penalty box was, the silver lining was the penalty kill. The maligned unit from last season was perfect this evening going 5-for-5.
The biggest positive from the penalty kill was the moment that got Tampa Bay back into the game. After a shot went behind the Lightning net, Ryan McDonagh recovered it and saw Anthony Cirelli racing up the right-wing boards. McDonagh banked a pass off the boards and into Cirelli’s outstretched hand. Cirelli settled the puck and entered the offensive zone on a 2-on-1 with Alex Killorn flanking him. Cirelli tried to feed a pass to Killorn once he reached the center of the right-wing circle, but the pass bounced off Aleksander Barkov’s skate, into James Reimer, and then back to Cirelli who took two swipes at the puck before he corralled it into the net to tie the game at one.
The energy that left the building during the previous two periods came rushing back after Cirelli’s goal. The Lightning seemed to feed off of this and pushed play back into Florida’s zone for several minutes, but the same sloppiness that plagued them in the previous two periods reared its ugly head and negated much of Tampa Bay’s momentum. Aside from a late chance by Killorn, Tampa Bay didn’t manage another dangerous scoring chance for the remainder of the period. Thus, the game went to overtime.
It wasn’t pretty. Tampa Bay spent more time trying to control the puck, make a tape-to-tape pass, and scramble in their own zone than generating any real offense. Florida beat Vasilevskiy on two shots, but were denied by the post to keep the game knotted at one. Tampa Bay had two good chances, one by Gourde and the other by Point. Neither managed to beat Reimer. So, off both teams went to the wonderfully adored shootout…
Miller – Goal (and a wonky one at that)
Hoffman – Miss (hit the goalpost)
Point – Save by Reimer
Barkov – Save by Vasilevskiy
Kucherov – Goal
Tampa Bay escaped with a 2-1 victory. Vasilevskiy stole this one. Absolutely robbed the Panthers of a win this evening. He stopped 42 shots—42! The Lightning only generated 29 all game.
The penalty kill was a sore spot for the team last season. With Todd Richards controlling the defense, it appears that the basic premise of the penalty kill is remaining the same—focusing on taking away passing and shooting lanes in addition to clearing out rebounds before an opposing forward can get to it, and forcing the puck carrier to the outside. Against Florida, this worked quite well. The only dangerous shot the Panthers generated was one by Mike Hoffman. Vasilevskiy swallowed it and seconds later, Cirelli tied it. What caught my eye was how the Lightning didn’t allow a Panther to be in front of Vasilevskiy often. Last season, the front of Vasilevskiy was a haven for opposing forwards. Hell, there was practically a welcome mat to provide cushion for their feet.
If Tampa Bay’s approach this season is to simply get out of Vasilevskiy’s way, then the penalty kill should improve. How much? That remains to be seen. Though, if the first game is a sign of things to come, then the penalty kill should hopefully be respectable this season.
*Prays for a penalty kill that isn’t a tire fire*
The Great Wallsilevskiy
That name is terrible isn’t it?
Regardless, he was the reason Tampa Bay won. Bar none. He shut down Florida at every turn after ceding the first goal. He wasn’t tested with a ton of high danger chances, but there were enough to make fans hold their breath. Vasilevskiy was the king tonight. Buy that man dinner for the next week.
Sloppity Slop Slop Slop
Aside from Yanni Gourde and some small flashes from Point, they Lightning’s top forwards were not impressive this evening (the third line was outstanding). Kucherov looked off on everything. Fanned shots, bad passes, misplayed the puck while in traffic. Just a poor night for number 86. Stamkos, Miller, and Palat seemed to be off as well. You can blame rust, and that probably is the case, but Tampa Bay’s top players can’t be that off all at the same time. They’ll bounce back. They’re too talented not to.
These two teams do not like each other, but I can’t find a reason to dislike Florida. They’re a good team with some great players. Maybe what we need is a playoff matchup between these two intrastate rivals. Maybe then I’ll actually care about this “rivalry”.