Hosting their first home playoff game in 770 days (April 12, 2019), the Tampa Bay Lightning squandered a golden opportunity to put the Florida Panthers on the brink of elimination in their 6-5 overtime loss Thursday night. The Lightning put forth an inconsistent effort that saw them get trounced for two periods (1st and 3rd) and make franchise history in the other by scoring five goals.
The Lightning hasn’t won a playoff game in Amalie Arena since Game 5 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals; that was 1,098 days ago. Obviously, this misses the context of a pandemic moving last season’s playoffs to Canadian bubbles where the Lightning dominated en route to their second Stanley Cup—that was only 235 days ago. Sometimes, it’s easy to focus on the wrong numbers and forget the context.
There’s little doubt Tampa Bay deserved to lose Game 3; the troubling part comes from how they lost the game. After trailing 2-0 entering the second period, Tampa Bay exploded for five goals to take a 5-3 lead. They forced Panthers coach Joel Quenneville to replace Chris Driedger with Sergei Bobrovsky to start the third period. Momentum was in the Lightning’s favor, and with their dominant record while leading entering the third period (28-0-0), it felt like Florida was doomed to a 3-0 series deficit. Instead, the Lightning faltered.
“It felt like we were kind of protecting a lead and not playing to our strengths,” Victor Hedman said after the game. “We knew that, and we weren’t happy with the way we played in the third. They’re going to push sometimes, but we weren’t good enough in the third, and that’s the bottom line.”
An early power-play after Ondrej Palat took a bad retaliatory penalty gave Florida a chance to make it a one-goal game—they didn’t waste it.
There were surges from the Lightning during the third period, but they struggled to put enough pressure on Bobrovsky more times than not.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper summarized it well during his postgame presser, “They’re going to get some looks. If you’re going to give that team time and space, they’re going to get some opportunities. I don’t think we shut down that time and space like we did in the previous game.”
Tampa Bay thrives off their aggressiveness on the forecheck and through transition, but they couldn’t get much going for long stretches of time. Outside of the second period, where the Lightning saw five different goal scorers (Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn) propel them to a two-goal lead, it was Florida dictating the pace.
What also didn’t help the Lightning was Andrei Vasilevskiy not being at the top of his game. The Big Cat had some brilliant moments last night, none more jaw-dropping than his twisting shorthanded save on Mackenzie Weegar that led to Killorn’s power-play goal in the next sequence.
But there were goals he should’ve had last night. The Patric Hornqvist, Gustav Forsling, and Alex Lomberg goals were ones the Vezina winner normally stop. The Lightning did him no favors, especially on the Forsling and Lomberg goals, but Vasilevskiy is expected to stop goals like that. Part of the issue stems from Florida’s approach; they’re relentless in their attack and don’t seem intimidated by the Big Cat. There’s little reason for them to be with how they’ve scored on him this season, four or more goals in six outings, including two in the past week.
“They kind of thrive on odd-man rushes,” Killorn said. “That kind of changes the way the game is.”
Florida’s offense is one of the best off the rush, something Tampa Bay neutralized quite well in Game 2 but struggled to contain in Games 1 and 3. The Lightning is built to win in multiple ways, but fighting fire with fire could be costly against a Panthers team designed to score in bunches.
For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay isn’t panicking.
“No one is worried in our locker room,” Killorn said. “It’s a series. We’ve been in a lot of these series before. There’s plenty of hockey to be played.”
Killorn’s right, but getting caved 47-31 in shots, 71-52 in shot attempts, 49-23 in scoring chances, 14-9 in high danger chances, and losing the expected goals battle 58% to 42% is worrisome, even with a dominant second period. The fact their power-play went from a dominant force to a lethargic entity when they needed it most in overtime only exacerbates the frustration.
Hedman provided a succinct response when asked about it, “It was off.”
Mix in the post Mikhail Sergachev hit off a one-timer, and you’re likely pulling your hair out.
However, Game 3 wasn’t an outlier; it was more of the same when these two teams meet. Florida has consistently out-possessed and outscored Tampa Bay this season. Cooper and his coaching staff need to make some adjustments, and the players have to execute them to slow the Panthers down. Tampa Bay has the experience and wherewithal to shrug this loss off, and it’s likely they will, but another effort like Thursday night will give Florida all of the momentum for Game 5 on Monday.
The Lightning has shown they can score on whoever is in net for Florida, but they cannot stray away from their style for too long or risk the same collapse as last night. Saturday afternoon is their chance to put a stranglehold on this series. Failing once isn’t the end of the world, but it's anyone's series if the Panthers tie it up.
- I’m not a religious person, but I’m praying Toronto’s John Tavares recovers from his terrifying injury last night. I won’t link it here—and do not look at the Toronto Sun’s disgusting front page—but it legitimately made me gasp when I saw it live (double TVs on different feeds). Get well soon, John.
- The Minnesota Wild is a wildly entertaining team this season, but after the Vegas Golden Knights stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to win 5-2 last night, it’s hard to see Minnesota pulling the upset off. Vegas is a deep team.
- It’s easy to troll the Toronto Maple Leafs for losing Game 1 to the Montreal Canadiens, but given the emotional roller coaster they went on due to Tavares’ injury, I thought the Leafs bounced back quite well. I still think the Leafs close it out in five.
- This was Tampa Bay’s first loss after leading entering the third period. Their record now stands at 28-0-1 this season and 2-0-1 in the playoffs. Still pretty darn good.
- Hedman isn’t 100%, but his production certainly doesn’t match that; his three assists in the second period set a Lightning franchise record for assists in a single playoff period. It matched a Lightning record for most points in a playoff period set previously by Killorn in the second period of Game 3 of a 2019 Second Round series versus Boston (2-1—3 pts). Additionally, his six assists in this series match his own Lightning record for most assists by a defenseman in a playoff series set previously in a 2018 Second Round series vs. Boston and again in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final against Dallas.
- Kucherov reached the 100-point milestone for his playoff career, becoming the 101st player in the NHL to record 100 playoff points and the 16th active player with his second period assist on Point’s power-play goal. He’s gonna go down as the best player ever to wear a Lightning sweater.
- For all the bluster about choking, winning it all, leadership, and whatever contrived nonsense people throw out about the Lightning when it’s all said and done, this era of Tampa Bay hockey is easily the best it's ever been. This core is better than the 2004 core that won it all; they’re more cohesive, more dominant, more consistent, and aren't saddled by poor management. When Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Sergachev, Killorn, Palat, and the rest hang up their skates, we’re going to look back at this version of the Lightning and rue not enjoying it more than we currently are.