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Lightning comeback attempt falls short 6-4 loss to Panthers

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They pushed back, but it was too little too late.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A bombastic second period highlighted Monday’s 6-4 loss to the Florida Panthers as Tampa Bay’s comeback attempt fell short. The Lightning received goals from Steven Stamkos, Alexander Volkov (x2), and Tyler Johnson. The Panthers received goals from Jonathan Huberdeau, Owen Tippet, Frank Vatrano, Anthony Duclair, Aleksander Barkov, and Anton Stralman.

It wasn’t the Lightning’s best showing, but they battled back to make the game interesting. Unfortunately, making things interesting doesn’t count in the standings.

First Period

The Lightning’s opening shifts of this period were encouraging. Led by Yanni Gourde’s line, Tampa Bay quickly transitioned through the neutral zone and forced the Panthers to scramble. However, as has been the case in the series against Florida, the Panthers applied their own kind of pressure. Spearheaded by a partial breakaway by Anthony Duclair that saw Curtis McElhinney make a fantastic toe save, Florida forced the Lightning back into the defensive zone.

It wasn’t until the fourth line, led by an aggressive forecheck by Alexander Volkov and Gemel Smith, forced an icing that Tampa Bay reasserted themselves. The ensuing faceoff saw Tampa Bay put on a clinic on puck control and movement as Stamkos wired his eighth goal of the season in his first game back from the COVID list.

This goal hinged on the work and minds of Ondrej Palat and Erik Cernak. First, Cernak initiated this sequence by smartly activating after Stamkos’ initial shot went wide and forcesdthe play deeper into the offensive zone. Palat shielded the puck with his body from Noah Juulsen and then deftly outmaneuvered Keith Yandle’s stick check to reconnect with Cernak; who had found a soft spot in Florida’s coverage. Instead of taking the shot from a prime location, he instead fed it to Stamkos for a more sure-fire chance of a goal. This is a play that Cernak likely doesn’t make in previous years.

Unfortunately, Florida would not be deterred after falling behind early as they managed to answer 1:28 later.

Does this goal feel more like puck luck? It absolutely does, but there is little reason for Jonathan Huberdeau to be that wide open in front of the net. McElhinney misread the dump in attempt and Tampa Bay’s skaters didn’t respond nearly quick enough to bail their goaltender out.

Florida continued to control the pace for the next few minutes. It eventually led to a power-play as Tyler Johnson went off for holding at 8:54. Tampa Bay proceeded to kill it off without allowing Florida to generate much pressure off the man advantage. The Panthers continued to push the Lightning back as play continued, and their neutral zone adjustment limited Tampa Bay’s ability to effectively transition.

It took until the final five minutes for the Lightning to find some form of consistent control as they started to force Florida back. Unfortunately, the Lightning couldn't convert on the pressure, and even a late power-play (Keith Yandle off for interference) couldn’t give Tampa Bay the lead again.

Overall, this period looked even from an analytical perspective. Florida held the edge in 5v5 shot attempts at 14-11, but Tampa Bay controlled the expected goals battle at 5v5 with 51%. However, Florida held the edge in the momentum department as they dictated the pace throughout the period with the Lightning only controlling in small spurts.

Second Period

The second did not start the way Tampa Bay wanted as Cernak was called for tripping at :47. Luckily, the man advantage for Florida was short-lived as Ekblad was called for interference at 1:25. Florida got the better of Tampa Bay at the abbreviated 4v4, and the shortened power-play did little to move the needle for the Lightning.

Once play returned to 5v5, Florida’s aggression started to cause Tampa Bay’s usually strong puck management to falter. This was highlighted by Jan Rutta making a poor play that led to Owen Tippet’s first goal of the season.

Tampa Bay proceeded to up their aggression to get themselves back into the game, but it provided mixed results. Their passes were constantly contested or intercepted by a Panther skater, and when they did manage to maintain offensive pressure, they generated little off of it.

Florida then proceeded to do what they’ve done throughout this series, push the pace and force mistakes.

First, a misplay by Mikhail Sergachev in the offensive zone forced Luke Schenn to take Frank Vatrano’s leg out on a breakaway which led to a penalty shot.

Vatrano didn’t miss.

Just 1:47 later, Duclair utilized his speed once again on a scoring chance, but this time he made it count.

There was a pulse from Tampa Bay as Volkov fired one past Chris Driedger 1:19 after Duclair’s goal.

Unfortunately, Aleksander Barkov had other ideas in store for this game as he danced around Rutta to make it 5-2 under a minute later.

The Lightning didn’t back down, though. They continued to aggressively attack Florida and eventually their pressure paid off as the fourth line capitalized on an odd bounce to bring them back within two.

Do you like goals? Cause goals were on the menu this evening. This goal was credited to Pat Maroon at first, but changed to Volkov’s second of the night.

The mayhem slowed down, finally, after Johnson’s goal, but a late power-play for Tampa Bay after Ekblad was called for hooking at 18:14. Tampa Bay failed to convert before time expired, but they did get some dangerous looks on goaltender Chris Driedger.

From an analytical perspective, Tampa Bay dominated this period. They out-attempted Florida 17-5 at 5v5, controlled the quality battle at 78%, and out-chanced them 7-1 (3-0 high danger chances). The issue is that the Lightning didn’t start controlling the game like this until they were already trailing by three goals. McElhinney’s rust from not playing much over the past 11 months reared its ugly head in this period, but his defense didn’t do him any favors for much of the game (especially this period).

Third Period

All the momentum Tampa Bay built up at the back end of the second period vanished just under a minute into the final frame of regulation.

Stralman was never an offensive force during his tenure with the Lightning, but he was still a stalwart for the team during his five seasons, and it still feels wrong seeing him in another jersey.

A sequence of trading chances followed suit in the following minutes after Stralman’s goal. Both teams saw odd-man rushes and good opportunities, but it was Tampa Bay who managed to maintain consistent offensive pressure. Shift after shift saw the Lightning pin the Panthers in the offensive zone and work the puck into dangerous areas. However, Driedger was up to the task as he thwarted two Brayden Point chances, multiple deflections, and howitzers from the Lightning defense.

Florida managed just one dangerous chance during this flurry, a partial breakaway by Brett Connolley that McElhinney snagged out of the air.

As the midway point of the period passed, the pace began to slow as Tampa Bay’s surge waned. Florida’s offensive pressure started to assert itself a bit more, but it was clear they were trying to ease off to hold their two-goal lead.

The physicality that has been a focal point of this series came out in full force this period. Yanni Gourde and Radko Gudas dropped the gloves after Gudas delivered a big hit to Barclay Goodrow. Gemel Smith was called for roughing Barkov shortly after, and a line scuffle broke out after the whistle.

The Panthers played a safe power-play predicated on puck control to bleed time off the clock in order to put even more pressure on Tampa Bay once even-strength play returned. Once the power-play expired, both teams opened up their games a little bit which saw some great chances occur. Florida had a 2-on-0 which ended up being stopped by a scrambling Victor Hedman while Tampa Bay connected on crisp consecutive passes to free up Alex Killorn in close. Killorn was unable to convert thanks to a slash from Yandle which put Tampa Bay on the power-play with a little over three minutes left in regulation.

The power-play floundered for the Lightning, and they generated little consistent pressure as Florida’s aggression thwarted much of their chances. There was another in-close chance for Killorn after he received a beautiful pass from Tyler Johnson, but Killorn mishandled the puck and the play ended up dying immediately.

Tampa Bay pulled McElhinney for the final minute of the period and was unable to find the goals they needed as time expired.

Post Game Thoughts

Plainly put, Tampa Bay wasn’t good enough this evening. They didn’t get back to their style of play until they were already trailing by three goals, and by that point, it was too late. However, there were positives from this game, mainly Volkov becoming more of an impact player and Johnson finding a groove, but the Lightning defense (and McElhinney) weren’t good enough this evening.

McElhinney’s off night is to be expected from a goaltender who hasn’t seen much action in months, it stings, but he’s always bounced back from poor outings. The bigger issue to take from this game is how long it took Tampa Bay to adjust to Florida’s attack. Florida’s forwards repeatedly used their speed to punish Tampa Bay’s slower defense and it paid off in spades this evening. The Lightning will adjust in the future, but it was too little too late for this game.

Regardless, Tampa Bay is still sitting well in the standings and get to finally have a rematch of the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars on Thursday.