Led by Andrei Vasilevskiy’s brilliance, Lightning hand Panthers a nightmare ending

Patrick Maroon had the go-ahead goal as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers 2-0, completing the sweep in their second-round series and advancing to their fourth Eastern Conference Finals in five years.

Even their best game couldn’t prevent the Florida Panthers’ worst nightmare, which speaks to how truly special are the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Nobody was more special Monday than Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 49 saves in a 2-0 shutout that swept the Panthers from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four games and propelled the Lightning to their third straight Eastern Conference final.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions have won 10 consecutive playoff series, behind only the 40-year-old dynasties of the New York Islanders (19 straight series wins) and Montreal Canadiens (13).

“It’s remarkable, it’s mind-boggling, but as Pat Maroon says to me, ‘Well, Coop, I’ve won 14,’” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Monday, referring to the Tampa forward who scored the series-winning goal. “But to think in the history of this game and the wonderful, glorious teams that have played in years past that have made the tradition of this sport so wonderful, to sit here and think we’re in the breath of the greatest teams that have played this game.

“Hopefully, we’re not done with that streak, but it’s pretty cool tonight to sit back and marvel at it.”

Monday was the sixth time that Vasilevskiy has closed out a series with a shutout.

“When we look back, when we’re older, that’s going to be something that stays there for a long time,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said of his goalie. “It’s pretty cool to play with a player that I think will go down as one of the best goalies that’s ever played the game. You know, that’s how you kind of gauge players — how they perform in big-time games — and he’s been nothing but tremendous in these games.”

For the first time in the series, the Panthers were tremendous, outshooting the Lightning 18-3 in the first period and 49-26 in the game. But their only victories were a pair of video reviews that overturned Lightning goals in the second period, and the highest-scoring NHL team in 26 years managed only three goals in the series.

The Panthers high-octane offence, which drove Florida to a 115-point regular season and the Presidents’ Trophy, was ineffective when their power play failed and the experienced, battle-hardened Lightning stopped feeding the Panthers’ transition game and built a fortress in front of Vasilevskiy.

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The Lightning blocked 77 shots in the four games and yielded few second chances in front of their goalie, frustrating all of the Panthers’ regular-season scoring heroes: Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Claude Giroux and Aaron Ekblad.

It seemed fitting that the speedy and skilled Panthers were sent home on a greasy, bat-in goal by Maroon, one of the slowest players on the ice — and also the winningest.

The 230-pound fourth-liner has won 14 straight playoff series because he won a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019 before joining the Lightning and winning two more.

Maroon broke the scoreless tie at 6:16 of the third period when he reached over Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to bat down a puck that had tumbled into the air from a point shot by Zach Bogosian, another Lightning throwback who before winning a Cup with Tampa two years ago was regarded by many as too slow and outdated. Ondrej Palat scored an empty-net goal with 23 seconds remaining.

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The Lightning in 2019 were a lot like the Panthers, and then transformed themselves.

“They were once a high-flying kind of offensive team,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said Monday, “and they found (another) recipe how to win and they stick with it. And obviously we aspire to be them. This was another learning experience for us. We need to be better.

“I think the learning is all the little things they do that win hockey games, how they block shots. I mean, they’ve got a guy like their captain (Steven Stamkos), who has scored 60 goals in this league, and he’s playing defence, blocking shots, he’s willing his team to win. And they’re all like that, and that’s the reason why they win.”

The Lightning can still score goals – they had 13 in the series, including the empty-netters – but are no longer a high-flying offensive team. They are loaded with guile and experience, a proudly blue-collar team led by high-end skill. They defend relentlessly.

“They kept it tight on the penalty kill, they kept it tight when they’re up, when they were down,” Ekblad said. “They’re a strong, strong team. They don’t give up much.

“Getting swept is tough. It hurts, it stings.”

It took the Lightning six second-round games to eliminate the Panthers from last year’s playoffs. After all those wins and goals, Florida was an easier out this time. Until Monday, they hadn’t been shut out since Vasilevskiy and the Lightning eliminated them last season.

“The whole series, we were always behind,” Barkov lamented. “We were always trying to tie the game. Credit to them, obviously. But there’s a lot of things that we could have done better.

“We can say we didn’t get bounces or we didn’t get lucky, hit the post a couple of times. But they played well and they didn’t give us much.”

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Challenged by Brunette to display more “will” and “resilience” after losing Game 3 5-1 on Sunday, the Panthers didn’t do enough to create Grade-A scoring chances in the series. They need to evolve like the Lightning have, but not every team can do it. Not every organization has that will, will take that risk, when things are great in the regular season.

Yes, the Lightning are special.

“And the beauty of the group is that we’re not satisfied,” Stamkos said. “We want 12 straight (series wins). When you kind of take a step back and put things into perspective, especially in the salary cap world that we’re in and the parity in our league, it’s a very, very special group.”

Without arguably their best player in injured forward Brayden Point, the team that has played more hockey than anyone over the last three years will get some vital time this week to rest and heal.

The Lightning will meet the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes-New York Rangers series as they try to become the first team since the 1983 Islanders to win three straight Stanley Cups.

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