Last night's bombastic series-opening game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers showcased two undeniable truths: this series is must-watch TV, and Nikita Kucherov does not deal with rust; rust deals with Nikita Kucherov. In his first game in roughly eight months, Kucherov put on a clinic up and down the ice.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Kucherov said.
There was healthy skepticism on whether Kucherov would struggle to keep up after missing the entire regular season and being inserted into a playoff atmosphere after rehabbing from hip surgery. He didn’t miss a beat with two power-play goals and an assist in a 5-4 Lightning win Sunday night in Sunrise.
Victor Hedman had a succinct remark postgame, “The scary part is that he’s only going to get better.”
Kucherov’s impact was sorely missed by a Lightning team that struggled to find consistency during the second half of the season. Inconsistency that lingered into last night’s game. Tampa Bay opened the game with a well-thought-out game plan that was derailed as post-whistle scrums, penalties (eight in the first period alone), and poor decision-making disrupted play.
Trailing after 20 minutes, after starting the game so well, wasn’t the position Tampa Bay wanted to find themselves in. However, as they’ve done numerous times over the past several years, they bounced back with a dominant period that reminded everyone around the league how dangerous this team is when they’re at full strength.
No disrespect to Ondrej Palat, who filled Kucherov’s spot on the top power-play in his absence, but no one in the NHL provides the dual-threat that number 86 does from that spot. His ability to pass or shoot at any moment is in a league of its own. The sequence before the goal where he feathered a saucer pass across the royal road, between two Panthers, directly onto Steven Stamkos’ stick (that saw the captain fire a one-timer that went wide of the net) is the playmaking Tampa Bay was missing all season.
The fact he did this twice in the same game is just unreal.
Kucherov deserves all the credit for finishing this chance (and reading the play perfectly), but the real credit needs to go to Brayden Point and Hedman. The controlled entry and ensuing forecheck created this goal, something Tampa Bay hasn’t been consistent at this season.
This slap pass is a masterclass. Kucherov knows the Panthers' penalty kill, and Sergei Bobrovsky is going to cheat towards him. The changeup throws Florida out of sorts resulting in one of the easiest goals of Point’s career.
“You fall back on your preparation,” Stamkos said. “And no one is more prepared than Kuch. There’s a reason why he’s one of the best in the world.”
Florida was clearly more concerned with “message sending” rather than outplaying Tampa Bay. The Panthers laid 56 hits (to Tampa Bay’s 34) in Game One. The Lightning didn’t take the physical attack lightly, willingly going back at Florida and showing they wouldn’t back down.
“We’re comfortable playing in these types of games,” Stamkos said.
This felt like a game Florida had to win to establish themselves in the series. Overall, this game was remarkably even; both teams attempted the same amount of shot attempts (64). Expected goals leaned toward Florida, but only due to a tilted first period (72%), where Tampa Bay controlled the second and third periods in quality (54% and 52%, respectively). Additionally, Florida’s special teams are nowhere near good enough to keep up with Tampa Bay’s. Florida was 15th in power-play efficiency and 17th on the penalty kill. If the Panthers want to continue taking penalties, it’s their own grave they’re digging.
Cooper summed up their goals against quite well when asked if the Panthers did anything that caused issues. “No, they didn’t do anything really to us. It was all self-inflicted. Sometimes you get what you deserve, and we got what we deserved tonight.” Turnovers led to three Panthers goals, and all three were avoidable.
From an entertainment perspective, this game (and series) is must-watch TV. The intensity, the disdain each team had for each other, and the unrelenting pace made it impossible to take your eyes off the broadcast. Often, when one team increases the pace, the other will counteract that by slowing the game down. Florida and Tampa Bay refused to default to that position. Instead, they kept pushing, kept attacking, and we were all beneficiaries of it.
“I just had the best seat in the house for it,” Cooper said.
Whether you’re watching the broadcast or managing to score tickets for a game, this series is likely the best match-up of the first round. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Make the Battle of Florida the new rivalry to watch.