It’s the National Hockey League’s regular-season champions versus the Stanley Cup champions, and it’s not even close. Playoff hockey wins every time.
After winning 58 games in the regular season, the Florida Panthers lost their third straight to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday and are another loss away from being swept by their less-skilled but more-capable rivals in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Even after the mystifying Panthers’ power play finally manufactured its first playoff goal in the opening period, it was the Lightning’s penalty killing, as well as Tampa’s experience, guile and intensity, that was a key factor in a 5-1 victory in Game 3.
Game 4 is Monday evening in Tampa with puck drop at 7:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.
Through three games and an aggregate score of 11-3, the Lightning have exposed the Panthers’ playoff inexperience and inability to match Tampa’s battle level.
“They’re Stanley Cup champions and the best team in hockey probably over the last five years, so they know what they’re doing and they are willing themselves,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said of the Lightning. “They have more will and more desire than we do. It shows probably, if you watch the game, shift after shift right now. We have to find a way. We need to dial it in deeper and harder and want it more.”
Later in his media conference, Brunette added: “They’ve just got a little more will. When there’s a loose puck, they’re kind of outbattling us. They want it a little bit more. They’re small margins, but they’re still margins. And small margins over a course of 60-minute game makes a little bit of a bigger margin. We have to find a way to be above the margins, not behind.”
But it’s already too late.
Teams that have trailed 3-0 in a seven-game series are 4-197 in NHL history. The Panthers have about a one-on-50 chance of surviving the Lightning, who are handling their opponent while dressing just 11 forwards because Brayden Point, possibly Tampa’s best player, has been injured since his team eliminated another playoff lightweight in the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
The NHL’s highest-scoring team in 26 years, the Panthers have managed just a single goal in each of this series’ first three games. The Lightning have blocked 59 shots, outscored Florida 4-1 on special teams and Tampa star Nikita Kucherov, after a four-point game on Sunday, has more points in this series (seven) than Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Claude Giroux, Sam Bennett and Aaron Ekblad combined.
The Lightning can earn some vital recovery time for Point and rest for themselves by winning Game 4 and earning a third straight trip to the Eastern Conference Final. They’re trying to become the first team since the early-1980s New York Islanders to win three straight Stanley Cups.
“We realize the challenge ahead,” Tampa captain Steven Stamkos said. “These guys are back against the wall. We’ve had this opportunity before and it’s the hardest (win) to get. So we understand that challenge, but we’ll be ready. We have an opportunity to do it in front of our home fans, feed off that. We know they’re going to give us their best effort, so we’ve got to match that and then some and just keep executing. I have confidence in this group that if we play the right way, good things are going to continue to happen.”
The Lightning were up 2-1 when Tampa’s Victor Hedman was penalized for interference at 6:37 of the second period. The Panther power play, which in the first period ended an unfathomable 0-for-25 playoff meltdown, had a chance to tie the game.
Instead, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made four saves, his teammates blocked four other shots and, seconds after Hedman’s penalty expired, Tampa defenceman Ryan McDonagh made the play of the game by getting the shaft of his stick in front of Huberdeau’s shot when most of the net was open.
And less than two minutes later, Stamkos made it 3-1 on a one-timer off the rush at 10:23.
“Our group’s great about understanding situations within the game,” McDonagh said after a plus-four game in which he led the Lightning with 23:21 of ice time. “Big moment there, a big opportunity for them. We kill it off and. . . shortly after that we put the puck in the net. So huge swing there. I think our group on the PK as a whole wants to thrive on being difference-makers for us.”
TURNING POINT PART 2
Vasilevskiy, McDonagh and the penalty-killers got the glory, but no one should underestimate the world-class skill involved in Stamkos’ dagger to the Panther’s heart.
Hedman made a perfect stretch, bank pass to Kucherov, who took the puck effortlessly, then quickly relayed it across the Florida zone for a streaking Stamkos to one-time from his off-wing. All three elements were sublimely executed.
Stamkos said he was inspired by the penalty kill that preceded it.
“As a guy that, you know, doesn’t get out on the PK and watches those guys, I mean, it really is inspiring,” he said. “You watch those guys, they’re battling, they’re blocking shots, doing whatever it takes. Those aren’t easy minutes in a game. You see guys coming back to the bench just gassed, gasping for air, and then they’ve got to go right back out there.
“This group, it’s just. . . whatever guys are on the ice, we have full trust in that. Some of that comes with experience at this time of the year, some of that comes with going out and getting the right (guys) at the deadline and knowing the big roles that they’re going to play, and it’s just trusting in each other that you’re going to get the job done. And when you have trust in your teammates, that creates a lot of confidence and it just progresses and it snowballs and you usually get good results.”
The Lightning were lucky not to lose another forward when Brandon Hagel dangerously cross-checked Panther Eetu Luostarinen into the end boards at high speed late in the first period. Referees Dan O’Rourke and Frederick L’Ecuyer initially called a major penalty on Hagel but downgraded it to a minor upon a video review. It sure looked like a major penalty and potential game misconduct.
Despite hitting his head on the boards, Luostarinen finished the game.
Where is Aaron Ekblad? Florida’s frozen scorers are getting much of the blame for this series, but Ekblad, who was supposed to be in the Norris Trophy discussion this season, has been almost invisible beyond his share of culpability for Florida’s power-play problems.
Brunette: “We’re losing a little bit of our — which has been our strength of our team — a little bit of our resilience. Frustration has taken over passion, and we need to erase that.”