The Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Florida Panthers 4-1 Tuesday night in a game that saw Florida do what Tampa Bay has done so well for years; get a lead and refuse to allow the opponent to crawl back into the game. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 28 saves on 31 shots, while Spencer Knight stopped 30 of 31 shots to win his first start of the season. This was the fourth consecutive game that Tampa Bay failed to score first, or even attain a lead. The last lead the Lightning held was in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s early in the season, but the Lightning’s struggles to score first and attain any form of a lead is becoming worrisome. Tampa Bay has yet to lead for a single second this season. For a team as talent-laden and experienced as this that is a bewildering stat to behold. Tonight’s game only magnified that issue as the Panthers capitalized on their chances while the Lightning squandered theirs.
An extended 5-on-3 power-play, two breakaways, puzzling decisions from bad shooting angles, and loose pucks laying in open ice with nary a single blue sweater near it. Tampa Bay couldn’t catch a break or force one of their own this evening. The silver lining is that they’ve played far better since the opening night debacle against a depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team. However, playing better doesn’t help when you’ve led for a grand total of 0:00 minutes through the first four games of the season.
Starting games on time have been a frequent complaint during the Jon Cooper era, but overall the Lightning has been fine in that regard. Yet, the start of this season is exposing this issue more so than in previous seasons. They were in danger of falling into that trap again as Florida’s aggressive attack pinned them back, but as Tampa Bay has done en route to back-to-back Stanley Cups, they weathered the storm and pushed back.
The first period became frantic as the Lightning matched Florida’s pressure and controlled play for long stretches of time. Their best chance came off an extended 5-on-3 that saw them put four shots on goal, but none of the dangerous variety. Tampa Bay focused too much of their pressure from the point or on finding the perfect shot (something they’ve historically been guilty of). Ultimately, the power play was squandered and appeared to sap some of the energy from Amalie Arena.
The second period saw penalties muddy the pace with both teams generating less than 10 shot attempts on net at 5v5. Luckily, Tampa Bay’s penalty kill was up to the challenge during their two sojourns onto the ice. It’s just unfortunate that one lost faceoff as the penalty expired led to Florida’s first goal of the night.
The Lightning had their opportunities, though. Two breakaways (one by Pat Maroon, the other by Steven Stamkos) saw great chances wasted as neither player could control the puck long enough to pose any threat to Spencer Knight. There was also a 2-on-1 with Stamkos and Brayden Point that saw Stamkos inexplicably wait till he was nearly on top of Knight before shooting the puck (which was promptly thwarted).
A late power play provided a glimmer of hope to establish momentum, but the Lightning largely wasted it with poor decision-making and ineffective zone entries.
A glimmer did arise in the early goings of the third period as Brayden Point scored his first of the season, but Florida immediately pushed back aggressive to regain the lead for the remainder of the night.
The Lightning tried to stabilize themselves as they went on the power play for the fifth time of the evening, but just like the previous four chances, they failed to generate anything dangerous. Then, Florida gave the Lightning a taste of their own medicine with some slick puck movement leading toward a goal.
A late power play was Tampa Bay’s last gasp to claw their way back into the game, but the trend of failing to generate anything dangerous continued for the sixth time this evening. The absence of Nikita Kucherov is blatantly apparent, and the coaching staff needs to entirely retool the power play moving forward. Why Tampa Bay isn’t utilizing a more shoot-oriented focus like they did last regular season is odd. Palat did well as a trigger man in the right circle, but he isn’t the playmaker or puck handled that Kucherov is.
Cooper, again, went aggressive with pulling Vasilevskiy with several minutes left, but it didn’t result in any goals this go around. Instead, Florida merely added to their lead.
Winless at home, .500 on the season, and concerns about their scoring ability are becoming difficult to wave away with “it’s early”. The Lightning is better than they’ve shown these first four games, but they’re not playing sound hockey to start this season. If they want to have a chance at a 3-peat they’re going to have to right the ship moving forward.