The Tampa Bay Lightning failed to secure home-ice advantage for the upcoming first round of playoffs against the Florida Panthers after a 5-1 loss on Saturday night. The Lightning also got swept for the first time in back-to-back games this season. Despite all of that, Tampa Bay still could clinch home ice with a regulation win in the last game of the regular season against the same opponent on Monday.
The Lightning entered this game with a very unusual lineup as they were missing three regular defencemen: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, who left the previous game on Friday due to upper body injury, and Jan Rutta, who just returned after missing the whole month. All players are listed as day-to-day and there’s no information on how serious these injuries are. Luke Schenn, Ben Thomas, and Fredrik Claesson filled their spots on the blueline, for Claesson it was his first game as a Lightning player. Mitchell Stephens also returned to the lineup, replacing Alex Barre-Boulet.
Having three regular players out of the lineup in addition to already missing Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos clearly made an impact on Lightning’s performance tonight. The Panthers looked like a more complete team all night, while the Lightning decided to take out their frustration in multiple fights with their opponent.
It was evident that the Lightning played without several regular players from the opening minutes of the game. Jon Cooper reshuffled forward lines as well, which resulted in Pat Maroon joining Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point on the top line. Ross Colton was promoted to the second line and played on the right side with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Mitchell Stephens replaced Colton on the fourth line, starting the game on the left side with Tyler Johnson and Mathieu Joseph. Yanni Gourde’s line was the only line which remained untouched by those changes.
The Panthers controlled the game in the first half of the period, outshooting the Lightning with a big margin. The updated Lightning’s lines looked a little bit sloppy as players clearly lacked some chemistry between them, but still managed to create a couple of solid chanced in front of Sergei Bobrovsky’s net.
With eight minutes left in the first period, the Panthers’ efforts were rewarded with the first goal. The play started at Florida’s defensive zone, when Thomas made a pass along the blueline to Luke Schenn. Schenn, a right-handed defenseman, who was forced to play at left side due to multiple injuries, couldn’t handle the puck and made an inaccurate pass, which was picked up by MacKenzie Weegar. The Panthers quickly broke into the Lightning zone on a rush and after a quick sequence between Alex Wennberg and Gustav Forsling, Wennberg fired the puck from the top of right circle past Andrei Vasilevskiy. Luke Schenn could have blocked a shot there, but it wasn’t also the greatest play by Vasilevskiy, as the puck went under his arm.
In the second half of the period, the Lightning managed to close the gap in total shots attempts and tie their opponent at 50 CF% at 5v5 and even took a lead in expected goal share with 57.32 xGF%. By the eye-test however, the Panthers looked obviously like more organized team, while the Lightning tried to find some connection within their new lines.
After killing the remaining minutes of power play started in the first period, the Lightning had to return on the penalty kill, when Erik Cernak was called for tripping. The Lightning almost connected for a shorthanded goal there, but Blake Coleman’s attempt was denied by Bobrovsky. The Panthers immediately responded at the opposite side of the net. Jonathan Huberdeau found Alecksander Barkov with a long pass in the left circle, Barkov then made a quick pass to Sam Bennett in the slot, leaving David Savard out of position. Vasilevskiy couldn’t stop Bennett’s shot and the Panthers took a 2-0 lead.
Less than two minutes after that second goal, the Lightning cut the lead to one goal. The Panthers players left an opened space in front of Bobrovsky in attempts to defend Yanni Gourde, who was controlled the puck behind the net. Schenn sneaked into that hole and buried a shot into the net off of Gourde’s pass.
The Lightning looked like a better team in the first half of the second period. It seemed like players adapted to the new lines and showed pretty good movement and passing. Unfortunately it doesn’t always result in scoring goals as the Lightning couldn’t convert on their chances even on the power play. Moreover they allowed another goal by Florida and frankly that was nothing but bad luck. Moments after an expired power play opportunity by the Panthers, Frank Vatrano intercepted the puck on the Lightning blueline and sent it along the boards to Wennberg, who tried to make another pass to Anthony Duclair, but the puck got deflected off Savard’s skate, soared into the air and landed into the net, despite Cernak’s attempts to bat it out.
Two minutes later the Panthers extended their lead to three goals. After winning a face-off in their defensive zone, the Lightning players were forced to turnover the puck. David Savard hesitated to make a pass and eventually lost the puck to Sam Bennett after pressure from behind by Huberdeau. Bennett delivered the puck to Huberdeau right into the slot, who sent it past Vasilevskiy with a backhand shot.
Despite playing better for nearly 13 minutes before Wennberg’s goal, the Lightning were outscored 1-3 in the second period. The Lightning were a better team in shot department, controlling 54.29% of shots attempts and leading the Panthers in expected goal share 57.09%, but were trailing 1-4 on the scoreboard.
The third period opened with another power play opportunity for the Lightning as a result of multiple scrums around the net at the end of second period. The Lightning however couldn’t capitalize on that man advantage, making it fourth scoreless power play in the game.
The Panthers did a great job of getting under the skin of Lightning players and the third period looked more like a wrestling match than a hockey game. The atmosphere between two teams had gotten very spicy by the half of last period, which resulted into another brawl. Colton jumped on Owen Tippett after his hit on Cirelli, Radko Gudas was also involved in that scrum. Several players were given misconducts.
The Panthers however continued to threaten the Lightning’s net and scored another goal with six minutes left in the game. Another shot, which normally wouldn’t led to the goal, and another weird deflection off David Savard and the Panthers took a 5-1 lead.
The last period was very frustrating for the Lightning, they failed to impose at least some kind of competition to the Panthers, staying busy mostly with fighting with their players. Overall both team combined for 136 penalty minutes, including seven misconducts. Statistically the Panthers dominated the Lightning with 68.75 CF% and 80.52 xGF% at 5v5 in the third period.