The Florida Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Saturday night. The Lightning entered the game having beaten the Panthers in the season opener on Thursday in Tampa. As the first game of a back to back before heading to Carolina on Sunday, this would have been a nice game for the Lightning to win. But alas, they’ll head to Raleigh hoping to avoid an early season losing streak.
Mike Hoffman led the Panthers with a hat trick. The Lightning got goals from Gemel Smith, Steven Stamkos, and Mathieu Joseph. Tampa was the better team for most of the night aside from an atrocious penalty filled stretch of the second period. But those ten minutes were enough to cost them the game and allow Florida to leave with two points.
The game started with both teams playing at a good pace but neither able to generate much offense. The checking was close and both teams did a good job of turning attacks back toward the neutral zone.
The Lightning got the first sustained pressure of the game from the Anthony Cirelli line as he and his linemates cycled the puck in the offensive zone creating a couple of shots. Largely on the strength of that shift, the Lightning got the better of the first five minutes even though neither team seriously threatened to score.
That changed at the 13 minute mark as the Panthers got the first big scoring chance of the game. Evegeni Dadonov received a pass in the right slot with lots of time to make a decision. He looked for a pass back across the goal mouth but unable to find it, he instead fired a shot at Andrei Vasilevskiy who made the save.
Florida nearly followed that with another good chance but backchecking Lightning forwards shut it down. First, Dadonov almost received another pass wide open in the slot but Tyler Johnson tied up his stick so that he wasn’t able to get to the puck. The puck then slid through the slot to MacKenzie Weegar but as he fired the shot, Nikita Kucherov reached in and blocked it sending the puck harmlessly away from the net. If Johnson and Kucherov are going to give that kind of defensive effort consistently this season, the team will be better for it.
The Lightning continued to get the better of play in general but the Panthers continued to get the better scoring chances. The next ones came on a shift with just over five minutes left in the period but Vasilevskiy again made the saves to keep the game scoreless.
The Lightning finally got a big chance of their own a little over a minute later when Mikhail Sergachev set up Pat Maroon in front of the net. The big forward nearly corralled it and slid it past Sergei Bobrovsky but he couldn’t quite finish.
At the end of the first period, the game remained scoreless and the Lightning led in both shots and expected goals. Notably, the entire period was played at 5v5.
The second period started with an incredible two minutes of non stop pressure from the Lightning. The puck barely left the offensive zone and if it did, they regrouped in the neutral zone and immediately started a new attack. During that stretch, the best chance came to Erik Cernak following a pretty setup by Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. Cernak had plenty of net to hit but unfortunately, his shot isn’t his strength and he wasn’t able to finish.
The Bolts continued the pressure through most of the first five minutes of the period. They played about as well as a team could possibly play without scoring a goal. And then, they completely disintegrated.
The problems started as the Lightning’s problems have so often, with penalties. First, the team took a too many men penalty for a sloppy line change. It wasn’t a particularly egregious example but by the letter of the law, it was a penalty.
The penalty kill responded. Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat were particularly good. They kept the puck in the offensive zone limiting the Panthers’ chances to score. They eventually got the best chance of the penalty for either team setting up Victor Hedman from the slot but a Panthers player blocked and the shot and sent it out of play.
The momentum from that excellent kill dissipated immediately as Mathieu Joseph took a hooking penalty barely a minute after it ended putting the team back in a shorthanded situation. This time, Florida took advantage. They applied pressure consistently. Vasilevskiy did his best making a big save early from an upright position on a shot that took multiple deflections. He even managed to get down and shut down the rebound.
But shortly after, Jonathan Huberdeau floated from the left circle down past the goal line to open a passing lane to Mike Hoffman in the right circle. The sniper didn’t miss and ripped it past Vasilevskiy on the far side.
Unbelievably, the Lightning took another penalty less than a minute after the Hoffman goal. Although, this one was an absurdly soft call. Cirelli and Mike Matheson got into a little shoving match behind the play and the Bolts center and key penalty killer somehow got a high sticking penalty.
The Panthers took advantage. Again, Huberdeau with the cross ice pass. Again, Mike Hoffman with the shot. Again, from the right circle. Again, he ripped it past Vasilevskiy. And despite the Lightning having been the much better team at 5v5, they were down 2-0.
After that goal, the Lightning finally managed to stop the parade to the box but that didn’t stop Florida from continuing to pour on the goals. Noel Acciari scored after forcing a bad turnover by Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts on the ice seemed more concerned with throwing hits than playing defense and Acciari was all alone in front of Vasilevskiy.
Tampa managed to get one back on a scrappy goal from the fourth line. Maroon threw the puck toward the net, it deflected off Josh Brown, Luke Witkowski pushed it toward the line, and Gemel Smith tapped it in.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, that goal wasn’t a sign of a changing tide. They immediately gave up a breakaway to Vincent Trocheck but Vasilevskiy made the save with a little bit of help from Cernak who got back to disrupt the shot a bit.
Just before the end of the period, Palat gave the Panthers one more big scoring chance as he decided to go for a skate in the defensive before turning it over leading to a wide open look for Aaron Ekblad. But again, Vasilevskiy kept the game close.
At the end of the second period, the Lightning led in shots and expected goals at 5v5 but that hardly mattered because of the mess they made by taking so many penalties.
The Panthers started the third exactly the way they finished the second. Hoffman deflected an Ekblad shot to complete his hat trick and put the Panthers up 4-1. That goal would turn out to be the game winner.
The Lightning got their second goal of the game a few minutes later. The teams went to 4 on 4 after Smith and Hoffman went to the box for roughing. Steven Stamkos scored on a vintage one timer from his office following a perfect pass from Victor Hedman.
Shortly after the goal, the Bolts got a break as Ekblad took a tripping penalty. At the time, it looked like this might be the beginning of a comeback. But it wasn’t to be. The best chance came to Nikita Kucherov on a cross ice pass. We’ve seen him score like that so many times but on this shot, he’d slid a little too far back toward the boards and slipped a little too low in the zone making his angle more acute than normal. He still put the shot in a good spot but his positioning gave Bobrovsky barely enough time to get across the crease and make the save.
Immediately after the penalty, the Bolts got one more chance but Kevin Shattenkirk couldn’t hit Stamkos with the pass and the moment passed. From that point, it never really felt like the Lightning would get back in the game. Over the next five minutes or so, the Panthers applied some pressure including a good shot by Frank Vatrano that almost extended the lead again.
Once the game got under five minutes, the Lightning started to threaten again. First, Mathieu Joseph got a breakaway. He didn’t finish that one but he did score a goal a couple minutes later following a nice passing play that started with Carter Verhaeghe and resulted in the rookie’s first career point. That goal cut the lead to one and that’s how the game ended.
Tampa continued to apply pressure in the final minutes but could not find another goal. At the end of the game, the Lightning led in both shots and expected goals but not on the scoreboard where it mattered.
The Lightning will have a tough time accepting this one. The Panthers played well enough but most of the problems for the Bolts tonight were self inflicted. They got themselves out of sorts with penalties and the game changed completely during that stretch of the second period.
Now, the team heads to Carolina to face one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference on the second half of a back to back with less than 24 hours between games. That’s far from an ideal scenario. The game against the Hurricanes starts Sunday at 5 pm.