Game 11: Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers

The Tampa Bay Lightning showed they can win games in a variety of ways, as they built an early lead, weathered a late storm, and finished off the Florida Panthers 4-3 in the skills competition.

Playing back to back on Saturday and Sunday against two Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference bottom-feeders might seem like a "trap" weekend, but the Lightning somehow managed to avoid falling in.

After giving up a 3-1 lead held until late in the third period and needing both overtime and a shootout, the Tampa Bay Lightning edged out the Florida Panthers 4-3 to quietly improve to 8-3 on the season.

Martin St. Louis opened the scoring for the Bolts less than a minute into the game when he tipped a nice feed from Steven Stamkos past a sprawling Jacob Markstrom for a 1-0 lead. Stamkos and St. Louis are probably the last duo any goaltender wants to see bearing down on them in a 2 on 1 situation, and while St. Louis is known as the playmaker and Stamkos the finisher, they each have enough skill to play both role quite effectively. Stamkos managed to (quite nicely) freeze both Markstrom and the defender with a shot wind-up, freeing the passing lane for a streaking St. Louis and creating the early lead the Bolts would never relinquish.

Less than five minutes later, the Lightning caught the Cats sleeping a bit in their own zone and in the midst of a change, as a seemingly harmless long wrister from Ryan Malone was kicked out wide but into the slot by Markstrom and straight to Stamkos' stick, who snapped it into a mostly empty net to grow the lead to 2-0.

With time winding down in the first period, the Cats had a late offensive zone surge with Marcel Goc, Jesse Winchester, and Shawn Matthias leading the way. Goc's wrister from the slot missed the net, but the puck caromed back into the low slot where Winchester was waiting. Anders Lindback -- getting only his third start of the season -- made a terrific stop on Winchester but couldn't stop Matthias on the rebound, and the teams entered the first intermission with Tampa Bay up 2-1.

The second period was the Radko Gudas show.

Midway through the middle frame, with the second power play unit on, the Lightning worked the puck back to the center point where Gudas flinged a soft wrister towards the net, likely just to keep the play alive and in the zone. But it took a fortuitous bounce off Florida defenseman Mike Weaver's stick and found a way through Markstrom to re-establish a two-goal lead for the Lightning.

Just a few minutes later, after missing on a hip check at his own blue line that forced the Panthers offsides, Gudas ended up on his butt in front of the Cats bench. There, Scottie Upshall decided to squirt some blue Gatorade (not water) on the prone Gudas:

Gudas responded by coming to his feet and taking an axe swing at the Florida bench itself, breaking his stick on it and earning himself a 2 minute minor for slashing and a 10 minute game misconduct/ejection, as well as top billing on Yahoo! Puck Daddy.

Obviously, playing what was essentially a half game with only 5 defenseman was a test for the Lightning, and Gudas -- who always plays with an edge -- will likely be coached to be more careful with his outbursts moving forward. As a result of his ejection, the rest of the Lightning blue line saw a drastic uptick in minutes. Matt Carle shouldered the brunt of the load, ending the night with a Ryan Suter-esque 29:24 of total time on ice, including near 2 minutes each on the power play and penalty kill units.

In spite of the potential momentum shift losing a guy like Gudas can cause, the Lightning carried their two-goal lead well into the third period before Nick Bjugstad tipped a slow, looping backhander down and behind Anders Lindback to cut the lead to 3-2.

With momentum established and score effects in full swing, the Cats pushed harder for an equalizer and found it when Ondrej Palat made a brutal mental mistake giving the puck away in the center of the ice in his own zone. Brad Boyes made no mistake and turned that gift into a goal and a 3-3 hockey game.

After a scoreless 4v4 overtime session, the game headed to the skills competition to determine who would claim the bonus point and who would be stuck with the loser point. (If you'll recall, the Cats were 6-11 in the shootout in 2011-2012, the year they won the Southeast Division with their heap of bonus points.) Valtteri Filppula was the first shooter for Tampa Bay, and he had another chance to display his stickhandling acumen as a late deke changed the angle of his low shot enough to beat Markstrom. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Victor Hedman, and Sami Salo all failed to convert before Brad Boyes -- who also scored the game-tying goal in the third -- evened things up in the shootout and forced a fourth round.

Much will be made about Steven Stamkos career shootout statistics heading into tonight's match, because they simply aren't very good. He entered the evening with an abysmal 5 shootout goals on 27 career attempts, which is baffling considering what he's capable of given time and space (and no pressure):

But, with the outcome of the game riding on his attempt, Stamkos made a terrific series of dekes in front of Markstrom and calmly deposited the puck into the net. Anders Lindback followed with a stop on Dmitry Kulikov and the Lightning walked out of the weeked with a shiny 2-0 record.

Game Notes

  • After going with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, head coach Jon Cooper went back to the 12 forward, 6 defenseman alignment tonight in Sunrise, scratching Keith Aulie and Mark Barberio and re-inserting Andrej Sustr and Pierre-Cedric Labrie.
  • Steven Stamkos (43%) was again the only regular Lightning center under 50% on faceoffs. Not to nitpick what was otherwise a strong game, but it's still an area of his game that needs work relative to the rest of the team especially.
  • The Cats maintained a small advantage in puck possession throughout the night, but that will happen when a team scores a goal less than a minute into a game, as Tampa Bay spent almost the entire night building or holding a lead while Florida spent nearly the full 60 minutes trying to catch up.
  • Anders Lindback finished the night with 29 saves on 32 shots for a .906 save percentage, but it's hard to fault him on any of the goals against, particularly the game-tier by Brad Boyes where an absolutely horrific giveaway in the own zone by the typically reliable Ondrej Palat led to a 3-3 score and essentially handed the Cats a point in the standings.
  • Attendance for this Sunday matinee was reported on the official game sheet at 12,336, but I highly doubt there were that many human beings in Sunrise to see this one live.
  • Florida finished 0/4 on their power play tonight and managed just two shots on the goal despite the four opportunities with the man advantage. For a team struggling to finish and put pucks in the net, their special teams are really not helping at all.