The final game of the 2016 Rookie Tournament at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs featured a pair of undefeated teams: the Tampa Bay Lightning versus the host Florida Panthers.
The resulting 60 minutes didn't disappoint.
In a highly-competitive game with both teams displaying a high level of quality, Florida edged Tampa Bay on a late goal by Denis Malgin to win 3-2 and finish as the top team in the tournament at a perfect 3-0 record.
The Lightning make the four-hour trek back to Tampa Bay having finished 2-1. But the final result on Tuesday won't put a damper on an otherwise successful four days for the Lightning in Coral Springs.
Bolts rookies coach and first-year Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx was extremely proud of how his team played in finishing second in the four-team tournament and complimentary of his players' effort in his post-game interview.
"Very happy, especially today," Groulx said. "I thought it was our best game. It's unfortunate that last play, but things like that happen, especially when you play a good team like Florida. Our guys skated well. Our compete was very good. I think we forced them to play hard. We were a tough team to play against today."
Florida and Tampa Bay proved throughout Tuesday's finale they were clearly the class of the tournament. The Panthers entered the game having outscored opponents 11-5. The Lightning netted 11 goals too through the first two games and owned a plus-4 goal differential.
Tuesday's contest was tight throughout, with neither team able to take control and build more than a one-goal cushion.
The Lightning struck first when 2016 second-round draft pick Libor Hajek took a well-placed cross-crease feed from fellow second rounder Taylor Raddysh and potted a shot past Florida goaltender Samuel Montembeault for a 1-0 Bolts lead at 14:50 of the first period.
"The first period, we were on them and on them and just kept the pace up from there," Lightning goalie Adam Wilcox said.
A pair of goals in quick succession, however, allowed Florida to nudge ahead in the second.
Kyle Rau took a behind-the-net feed from Tyson Baillie and one-timed a shot past Wilcox, his former teammate at the University of Minnesota. That goal tied the score 1-1 at 13:52 of the second period.
Less than two minutes later, the Panthers took their first lead on Zac Lynch's only goal of the tournament.
Like they did in each tournament game, however, the Lightning were able to rally from a deficit. Fifty nine seconds after Lynch's goal, Boris Katchouk tied the game through some hard work down low. His initial shot was denied by Montembeault, but he recovered the puck behind the goal, brought it back out in front and was true with his second chance.
"He played with an edge today," Groulx said of Katchouk. "He was a strong man in the corner and (scored) a nice goal."
The game remained deadlocked through the remainder of the second period and most of the third, but Florida pulled ahead for good with only 1:14 to go. Denis Malgin carried the puck into the zone on a two-on-one break, and with a Lightning defenseman sliding down on the ice to break up a potential pass, Malgin took the shot himself and beat Wilcox for the game-winning score.
"He wasn't showing shot there, so I was maybe thinking pass," Wilcox said. "…He's a player with a nice shot, but obviously I want to have that. Those are the saves that make good goalies great when at the end of the game you can preserve the game. But I'll get him next time. I could have played a little more aggressive on that. I thought maybe I was a little deep. But, it's one of those you look at on video and learn from."
Wilcox recovered well on Tuesday following a performance he admits wasn't up to his standard in the tournament opener Saturday when he gave up four goals in 30 minutes. In that game against the Washington Capitals, Wilcox flubbed a pass behind his net in the opening moments, leading directly to the Caps first goal, and that mistake hung with him the rest of the game.
On Tuesday, Wilcox was much more confident in his play and made several big stops to keep his team in contention.
"I think it was the start of the first game with that uncharacteristic goal by giving it to their team I think is what allowed for that start there, but I had to put that game behind me because it's my second year here and you can't make mistakes like that and you've got to come in and show the guys they have a solid goalie back there," said Wilcox, who finished with 23 saves on 26 shots versus Florida.
"He bounced back very well today," added Groulx. "He competed hard. He showed the kind of competitor he is, and I think it was good for his confidence."
Brett Howden finished with a team-high two assists and two points against Florida. He ended the tournament with four points (2 goals, 2 assists). Brayden Point had a team-high six shots on Tuesday but was shut out against the Panthers, Still, Point ended the tournament as the Bolts' points leader (3 goals, 2 assists).
The Lightning prospects will take Wednesday off before the start of training camp on Thursday.