If the Sunshine Series is supposed to represent the evolution of a new world order – or at least a power change in Florida – the team ruling over the current National Hockey League order delivered a formidable message on Tuesday.
The high-scoring Panthers topped the NHL regular season with 122 points and 58 wins. They led the league in scoring and shots, and last week won a playoff series for the first time in 26 years. One series.
At the start of their second series this month they looked like tourists, like the same Stanley Cup neophytes the Toronto Maple Leafs were last round when they lost in Game 7, as they always do, to the Lightning.
Tampa scored three power-play goals, got better goaltending than Florida and calmly played its way back from a sloppy start with the confidence of a team that has been-there, done-that and has more diamond-encrusted rings than Birks.
The Lightning made this look routine, but it wasn’t.
They played without star centre Brayden Point, who appeared to suffer a hip or groin injury when he twisted and fell into the boards Saturday in Toronto. They lost key defenceman Erik Cernak in the second period Tuesday when he blocked Brandon Montour’s shot with his back. They got goals from fourth-liners Corey Perry, to tie it on a power play, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
The only scorer for the talent-heavy Panthers was Anthony Duclair, who was a healthy scratch when Florida eliminated the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the opening round.
This was a statement by the Lightning, who won Game 1 against their arch-rivals while playing probably a C-plus game by Tampa’s standards. And that message comes with baggage for the Panthers, who were expected by many to take down the Lightning a year ago but dropped the opening-round series’ first two games on home ice and never recovered.
“For the most part, I think the boys are feeling pretty good about that win,” winger Ross Colton said after scoring Tampa’s final goal. “I thought we played a good 60 minutes. Vasi (goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy) was unbelievable the entire game, the power play executed there when we needed it, and. . . guys were blocking shots, being warriors.”
On winning without Point, whom coach Jon Cooper claims is out day-to-day, Colton said: “It's kind of just almost like a rallying call. Brayden goes down and he's obviously a huge loss for our team. But guys step up into new roles and, you know, want to fill that void that he's not in. Guys did a great job kind of rallying.”
The Panthers will need to do that in Game 2 on Thursday.
The Panthers advanced against the Capitals despite going 0-for-18 on the power play and getting outscored 7-0 on special teams. They haven’t a hope against the Lightning unless they solve this crisis.
The Lightning power play went 3-for-6 in Game 1, the Panthers’ was 0-for-3. Data from Sportlogiq indicates the Panthers have generated only three inner-slot shots on the power play – in the playoffs. This is shocking for a power play that tied for fifth in the regular season with a 24.4 percent success rate and features Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Claude Giroux, Sam Reinhart and Aaron Ekblad.
“Well, I think we can shoot more,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “We talk about it (but) we're getting a little stubborn at times. You get out of sync on these kinds of things and it's hard to get your mojo back. That's why when you have it, you've got to keep it. Right now. . . we have to find it. And I think it starts with a shot, but we're a little reluctant right now.
“We had some chances. I didn't like the decision making shorthanded, trying to make something out of nothing. They're too good of a power play to give them free looks like that. But we did a lot of good things five on five. Special teams and our faceoff was the difference in the game.”
On the winning goal at 3:35 of the third period, Bellemare won a messy offensive-zone draw from Eetu Luostarinen, then beat Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on the rebound from Perry’s shot. Bellemare, who has played a lot of playoff hockey the last four seasons in Vegas and Colorado, has more playoff goals (two) this month than Huberdeau (one), who tied for second in NHL scoring with 115 regular-season points.
“I mean, it's more credit to the coach to put us (out for) an offensive faceoff,” Bellemare said.
Cooper was stunned when Tampa defenceman Ryan McDonagh was penalized for interference late in the third period for a clean, mid-ice hit on Noel Acciari, who was trying to gather a high puck when he was knocked down and fumbled.
Cooper’s confidence in referees Jon McIsaac and Kelly Sutherland probably didn’t improve much when Duclair was judged to have scored a good goal on the ensuing power play, which would have tied the game 2-2 with 8:05 remaining, after the puck ricocheted into the netting several feet above the glass before trampolining back to Duclair. It was disallowed on a coach's challenge.
But after the game, it was Brunette who took a little swipe at the officials – and the Lightning – when he was asked about his team’s six penalties.
“Obviously, you know what they do,” Brunette said, meaning the Lightning. “They're a veteran team, they've been in these kinds of situations, they sell it pretty good. And we just have to be a little aware of that and maybe sell it ourselves a little bit.”
AND YET. . .
None of the penalties were on Panther defenceman Ben Chiarot for a pretty obvious, albeit mild, visor-to-visor head butt on Colton as they were being assessed off-setting penalties for cross-checking at 10:13 of the second period. It didn’t look like a suspendable incident, but Chiarot took a significant risk with his “Glasgow kiss.”
With Point out, Nikita Kucherov was fully-engaged for the Lightning. Not only did he score once and beautifully set up Perry’s tying goal at 16:22 of the second period by embarrassing Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad one-on-one, but the offensive star tied for second on his team with three hits – 10 per cent of Kucherov’s regular-season total.
“Obviously he can carry us into the fight a little bit there and makes everybody around him better,” McDonagh said of his teammate. “He likes to do it on his own at times, too, and try to take over in his way. Obviously, an all-world play on the setup there to Perry. I mean, we've seen it time and time again, the guy just loves playing playoff hockey and stepping up for our team when we need him.”