Heading into Thursday’s season opener with some new faces on the roster, the Tampa Bay Lightning sought to put last season’s ending behind them. Following three straight preseaon games against the Florida Panthers, the in-state rivals met once again, this time with actual meaning.
Despite plenty of up-and-down moments, it turned out to be a pair of the Lightning’s new faces, as well as a group of familiar ones, who propelled the Lightning to victory.
Buoyed by Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 35 saves and five different goal scorers, the Lightning emerged with a 5-2 win over the Panthers at Amalie Arena. At first glance, the score might seem a bit lopsided, but the Panthers controlled the flow of play for much of the first two periods before the Lightning took command in the final 20 minutes. At the end of the day, Vasilevskiy’s performance kept them afloat, allowing the rest of the team to find its stride like we’ve seen so many times over the last few years.
One of the familiar faces puts on a familiar show
The opening 20 minutes turned out to be an uneven performance from the Bolts, who balanced a few surges in the offensive zone with long stretches without much in the way of quality scoring chances. While Florida didn’t necessarily dominate the period, they controlled the flow of play and kept the Lightning from using their speed through the neutral zone at times.
However, the Lightning’s longest stretch in the Panthers’ zone resulted in a goal during a delayed penalty. Mathieu Joseph did a fantastic job drawing that penalty. This led to some excellent puck movement ensuring the Bolts wouldn’t even need the power play. Mikhail Sergachev teed up Kucherov with a perfect pass, and the reigning Hart Trophy winner unleashed a vintage one-timer. Channeling what felt like the weight of the world into that shot, he beat Bobrovsky for a 1-0 Bolts lead at 6:39.
Despite the goal, Florida found themselves knocking on the door several times
The Panthers controlled play at 5-on-5 in the first 20 minutes, highlighted by a couple of brilliant scoring chances. Dryden Hunt collected the puck off a pass while trailing the play on a rush, firing a shot off the iron. With under two minutes left in the period, Evgenii Dadonov got behind Tampa Bay’s defense and raced in on a breakaway. Despite deking to his forehand, Vasilevskiy came up with his first big highlight-reel save of the season. The stop brought the home crowd to its feet. After that save, the Lightning began to spend more time in Florida’s end of the ice just before the intermission.
Ondrej Palat puts his 2013-2015 form on display
One of the team’s familiar faces, Palat missed a big chunk of time due to injury a season ago, but he played like a man possessed on this night. Playing on a line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, Palat helped start off plays that led to scoring chances. In addition, he even displayed a physical edge that seemed to rub off on some of his teammates. If Palat can stay healthy, perhaps we see him regain his peak form from his days on the Triplets line? His first period effort wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Palat this evening.
The Panthers finally break through early in the second period
Tampa Bay’s puck management and passing left a lot to be desired in this contest, and the Panthers continued to build off an impressive first period by finally tying things up at the 2:35 mark of the second. The play started when Vincent Trocheck slipped away from Victor Hedman behind the Lightning net. Kevin Shattenkirk lost track of Mike Hoffman, and Trocheck fed him in the slot. A wide-open Hoffman buried one past Vasilevskiy to make it a 1-1 game.
The Lightning continued to be careless with the puck and it nearly cost them. Denis Malgin pounced on a turnover, but Vasilevskiy slammed the door shut. Moments later, another turnover led to a 2-on-0 break, with Vasilevskiy committing highway robbery on Dadonov for the second time. Moments later, Bobrovsky showed why the Panthers gave him $70 million for the next seven years. Cirelli fed Palat off a 2-on-1 in the high slot, but Bobrovsky slid over to deny Palat with a fabulous save.
Shattenkirk makes up for his earlier defensive miscue by giving the Bolts a lead
The Lightning’s second power play of the night featured some good looks by both units, but it was the second unit who came up big moments after the power play ended. Shattenkirk, one of the Lightning’s new faces, blasted a shot from just inside the blue line past Bobrovsky for a 2-1 Bolts lead at 10:28. Signed for his puck-moving and ability to quarterback a power play, Shattenkirk delivered in that department. Sergachev picked up his second assist of the night, highlighting an all-around impressive effort for the third-year Russian blue-liner at both ends of the ice. Despite holding a one-goal lead going into the second intermission, the Panthers held a clear, distinct advantage in scoring chances and puck possession through 40 minutes.
The Bolts put it together in the third, but not without some adversity
As the third period began, the Lightning began to turn the heat up. Spending a lot more time in Florida’s zone, the Bolts began looking like the skilled, puck-possession force we’ve grown accustomed to. They forced Bobrovsky to make a couple of early saves and drew an early power play just under six minutes into the period. However, disaster struck when a terrible turnover in the neutral zone led to a breakaway. Trocheck took a pass from Aaron Ekblad, skating in alone on Vasilevskiy. He roofed a shot over the Lightning goaltender, tying it up 2-2 at 8:49.
Despite the setback, the Lightning struck back with a vengeance. Palat, who spent the whole night conjuring up images of his Calder Trophy finalist season, redirected a shot past Bobrovsky out of midair to put the Lightning back up just 45 seconds after the Panthers tied it up. Sergachev capped off his night with his third assist on the goal.
Soon after, one of the Lightning’s other new faces put the final nail in the Panthers’ coffin
About four minutes after Palat’s goal, another Lightning power play came to an end, yet the Lightning remained vigilant. They continued to pour on the pressure, and with the Panthers scrambling, Pat Maroon put an exclamation point on the game. Jamming home a rebound after a wild sequence in front of Florida’s net, Maroon’s first goal in a Lightning uniform put Tampa Bay up 4-2 and the game out of reach. Erik Cernak capped it off with an empty net tally, helping the Bolts to victory and putting smiles on the faces of the Amalie Arena crowd.
Tampa Bay returns to action Saturday night when they take on the Panthers at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, with the puck dropping at 7 pm.
Three Stars of the Game
1st Star: Ondrej Palat – Scored the game-winner, created chances, threw the body around, and was a monster on the forecheck, using his speed to create havoc.
2nd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Finished the evening with 35 saves, some of the spectacular variety, that kept the Lightning in it through the first two periods.
3rd Star: Mikhail Sergachev – He tallied three assists and was impactful at both ends of the ice. Made some nice defensive plays and was decisive with the puck in the offensive zone.
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