The Tampa Bay Lightning are the hottest team in the National Hockey League after rattling over seven consecutive wins coming into Sunrise, Florida tonight. A win versus their in-state and divisional rival Florida Panthers would tie a franchise record for consecutive wins and would draw them within a single point of the division leading Panthers; positioning the Lightning as a serious contender as the league closed in on its annual All-Star Break. The Panthers having seen a ten point lead in the division seemingly evaporate over the last two weeks were looking to stop the bleeding and reestablish their division dominance against one of the many clubs suddenly nipping at their heels heading into the break.
The 1st period started with the Florida Panthers taking a careless high sticking penalty thirty-five seconds into the game as Panther defenseman Dmitry Kulikov caught Lightning right-winger Ryan Callahan with a high stick, giving the Bolts their first power-play of the night. The subsequent power play saw Tampa’s captain Steven Stamkos rip a fastball shot off of Panther’s net minder Roberto Luongo’s facemask. The shot startled Luongo who took a few extra seconds to shake the cobwebs out before the next faceoff. The Lightning would get several good looks on the rest of the power-play but could not beat Luongo. Lightning left-winger Ondrej Palat would get called for a hooking penalty only a few minutes after Lightning power play expired giving the Panthers their first power play of the night. The Panthers like the Bolts first power-play saw several chances with the man advantage but Tampa goalie Ben Bishop continued his streak of sharp play stopping all the shots he faced on the power-play helping the Bolts successfully kill the penalty. The Panthers would take another penalty almost immediately after their power-play expired but the Lightning could not capitalize against a tough Florida Panther Penalty Kill that ranked 8th in the league coming into tonight’s game. Both clubs seemed intent on spending more time playing a man up or a man down than at even strength as the Panthers and Bolts would trade the man advantage for a 2nd time for Tampa and a 3rd time for Florida in the last quarter of the first period. Neither power-plays were able to get much going as both Ben Bishop and Roberto Luongo used their veteran positioning to prevent any easy special teams goals keeping the game 0-0 through the end of the first period. The Lightning would maintain the shots on goal advantage 13-11 after the first period.
The 2nd period would start with both clubs seeing some up and down action attempting to gain the offensive zone and set up a quality scoring chance. However, unlike the first period where anytime a team would build some momentum a penalty would stop play, both teams managed to stay out of the box early. Ben Bishop would see the first really dangerous chance of the period as Panther right-winger Logan Shaw would be the recipient of a nice pass springing him on a break away in which he tried to beat Bishop far side but could not get it past the Tampa goalie. Bishop would also stop the subsequent rebound and would spur a Tampa Bay scoring opportunity as Steven Stamkos caught the Panthers pinching in after their scoring chance and was able to get a great shot off on net that Roberto Luongo would stop to keep the game tied 0-0. The Panthers continued to press the pace as they would out shoot the Lightning 10 to 1 through the first half of the second period. The pressure would finally break the Tampa Bay defense despite Ben Bishiop’s best efforts to keep things scoreless. Florida Panther center Jonathan Huberdeau would see an initial breakaway stopped by Bishop but the Panthers kept the play alive and on his second chance put a beautiful top shelf shot past the Lightning goalie to give the Panthers the first lead of the game 1-0. Bolts youngster Tyler Johnson would make things worse by taking a tripping penalty setting up the Panthers for their third power play of the night just a minute after the first goal of the game. The Lightning net would be under assault the entire power play as the Panthers would eventually score with one second left on the power play to make it a 2-0 Panther lead. The second goal opened the floodgates as the Tampa defensemen did absolutely nothing to help their goalie or team watching Panther defenders blast multiple rebounds and point-blank shots at will. The Panthers would take a 3-0 advantage after another poor defensive effort allowed a Panther forward to get in deep into the Tampa zone allowing a crossing pass by Panther forward Reilly Smith to go off Tampa defensemen Victor Hedman’s skate for yet another goal. The Panthers finished off their total domination of the Lightning with a fourth goal that can only be described a “blind lucky flutter puck” shot by Panther Logan Shaw who saw two Tampa defensemen stare at the puck go over their shoulders and into the Lightning net as Ben Bishop was completely screened on the play. The Florida Panthers went into the locker room with a dominating 4-0 lead, as a shell-shocked Tampa Bay Lightning club was out shot 19-7 in the 2nd giving the Panthers a 30-18 SOG advantage through two periods.
As the 3rd period approached, the question was not could the Lightning make a miraculous comeback, but more like how bad of a beating would the Panthers administer by the time the 3rd period horn sounded. The good news for the Lightning is that the would not allow a goal in the first two minutes of the period, the bad news is they also remained in a 4-0 deficit. Lightning winger Ondrej Palat nearly got Tampa on the scoreboard with a great slap shot from the point as Luongo was sliding across his crease as he was caught out of position but Luongo would make a tremendous glove save on the shot to keep it 4-0. The Panthers would take a tripping penalty on the next shift and the Bolts power-play would finally break up the Roberto Luongo shutout after a strong special teams shift ended with a beautiful shot by Victor Hedman from the point beating Luongo to make the game 4-1 early in the third period. The Lightning momentum would continue to build as Lightning forward JT Brown would get hooked giving Tampa another power play and a chance to cut deficit to two goals. However, any thoughts of a possible miracle rally seemed to die as Valtteri Filppula would get stoned by Roberto Luongo as he broke in all alone at the end of the power play to keep the game 4-1 midway through the 3rd period. Jon Cooper seeing his club’s chances dwindling decided to buck hockey’s conventional wisdom and rely on analytics which advocate for pulling the goalie as early as possible when facing a large deficit; as Cooper pulled his goalie to get the Bolts an extra man with a little over ten minutes to play in the 3rd. Despite conventional hockey pundits who may turn their nose up at Cooper’s tactics it was the absolute right way to play as the next five minutes of play the Lightning completely dominated the puck with the extra attacker getting multiple shots from all angles; it just so happened that Roberto Luongo was not going to let the game slip away and stopped every Tampa scoring chance with the extra attacker on. After nearly six minutes of playing with an empty net the Panthers finally put a nail in the Tampa coffin making the game 5-1 with an empty net goal late in the 3rd. JT Brown would add a late meaningless goal after great hustle play giving the Panthers a 5-2 win over their division rival. Tampa managed to get back ahead with the shots on goal holding a 40 to 35 advantage as the horn sounded, however it was not enough to overcome the disastrous 2nd period which put the Panthers ahead for good.
The Lightning would fall to 26-18-4 on the year snapping their 7 game win streak, and the Panthers would improve to 28-15-5 retaking a five point lead in the Atlantic division.
The Lightning will next be in action on Wednesday January 27th, as they return home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs for their last game before the All-Star break. The game can be seen locally on SUN sports with a 7:00 pm puck drop.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
- Roberto Luongo– The veteran net minder made several great saves, including an early one against Steven Stamkos he likely did not even see. He stopped 38 of the 40 shots he faced, and every time Tampa seemed poised to turn the game around there was Luongo with a monster save to keep the game out of reach. When you have an all-star in net like Roberto Luongo playing like he did tonight, you can’t expect to beat him without a tremendous effort.
- Jonathan Huberdeau– The youngster provided a great complete game effort for a team looking for consistent offensive help. He opened the scoring with a goal of his own, and assisted on the 2nd goal of the game essentially opening the flood gates to a Panthers 2nd period rout. If the Panthers are to make a legitimate run this year Huberdeau will likely need more efforts like tonight to make that a reality.
- Victor Hedman– Typically a defenseman on a team that allows 5 goals usually won’t qualify for a “star of the game”. However, it seemed as if Hedman was the only Lightning defender to show up in Sunrise tonight. Hedman gave the Bolts some life in the third by finally beating Luongo for his 4th goal of the year when it seemed like no Bolt would be able to get one by him. He than showed tremendous effort and discipline stopping two consecutive shots on the Tampa empty net as the Lightning were frantically trying to get back into the game in the 3rd period. Victor earned his seat on the team plane home, the rest of the Tampa defense at the very least should carry his bags for him.
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