The Bolts were riding high having won seven games in a row, one victory away from tying the franchise record for consecutive wins set by the 2003-04 Stanley Cup championship team.
Florida, however, emphatically snuffed that streak with a thoroughly dominating 5-2 victory in front of its home crowd.
In consecutive victories on back-to-back nights over defending Stanley Cup finalists Tampa Bay and Chicago, the Panthers proved to the rest of the league they’re no flash in the pan.
The Lightning, now 1-2-1 this season versus Florida, have more work to do to topple the Panthers.
So why were the Lightning so resoundingly outplayed in the second period? And what about the burgeoning rivalry between the two teams?
Those topics, and more, in today’s 3 Things.
1. THE RIVALRY
Two months ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers were a couple of middling teams in the Atlantic Division still searching for consistency in their game when they met for the second time in 2015-16 and first in Sunrise.
The atmosphere inside the BB&T Center reflected the teams’ spot in the standings.
A lackluster crowd of 12,067, about 5,000 less than capacity, sat on their hands while the Bolts and Cats gave them little to cheer about. Over 59 minutes of listless action elapsed before someone finally broke the scoreless deadlock, the Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad wristing a shot from the point that went off a skate and past Ben Bishop to send the home crowd to the exits happy following a 1-0 Florida victory, its second win in three nights over the Lightning.
Contrast that scene with the one Saturday night.
More than 100 Lightning fans caravanned down Interstate 75 to Sunrise and set up a tailgate outside the team hotel, singing and cheering with each passing Bolts fan (or booing when a Panthers fan strayed in the vicinity).
The group formed a line outside the hotel entrance, greeting the Lightning players as they boarded the bus for the BB&T Center with colorful chants and rock-star-like applause.
Inside the arena, a sellout crowd of 19,626, Florida’s sixth sellout of the season, watched the top two teams in the Atlantic battle to remain atop the division standings. The electrically-charged atmosphere alternated between Lightning fans yelling, “Let’s go Lightning,” and Panthers fans trying to drown them out with, “Let’s go Panthers” chants.
“It’s nice to see obviously for the state of Florida that both teams are having great years,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos following the team’s morning skate on Saturday. “It’s not like the games against them have never mattered, but these ones are magnified a little more because of where both teams are in the standings and the competitive nature of both organizations.”
Before the 2013-14 season, the team’s tried to spice up the rivalry by introducing the Governor’s Cup, a championship trophy that would be given to the team with the most points from the head-to-head series at the end of the season.
Tampa Bay swept all four games that season to win the first Governor’s Cup.
Turns out, it would also be the last.
The idea faded and was forgotten after just one season.
The Governor’s Cup sits on a non-descript table in the Lightning’s marketing department, tucked away in a little-seen corner next to a copy machine.
Great rivalries, it seems, can’t be manufactured. They have to be grown organically.
Saturday night was a major step in the right direction for a long-lasting Bolts-Cats feud.
2. A SECOND TO FORGET
The game was even through the first period, neither team able to take advantage of the five combined penalties doled out by the striped shirts. The Lightning had 13 shots to Florida’s 11. Both goaltenders were at the top of their game, keeping the game scoreless through the first 20 minutes.
There were no warning signs for what was to come in the second period, where the Panthers took complete control and dominated the Lightning like they haven’t been dominated before.
Tampa Bay hung with the Panthers through the first quarter of the second period, but Florida broke through at the 8:50 mark on Jonathan Huberdeau’s eighth goal of the season.
From there the floodgates opened, as wave after wave of Florida attacks ended up in the back of the Bolts’ net. The Panthers scored four times in less than nine minutes to send the BB&T Center crowd into a frenzy.
“That hasn’t happened to us this year where we’ve given up a bunch of goals like that in one period, let alone four in a game,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “It was just one of those, I thought we were handling the game pretty well, the first period back and forth, a bunch of power plays that really didn’t do too much. I thought the first five, six minutes of the second we were fine. We actually had some good looks, the problem was we were blowing shots wide and we were kind of one and done. That was actually feeding their transition a little bit. It seemed like when they got that first one then they kind of got a little life. We pretty much kill a penalty off, and they score with one second left. Now they’re feeling it, and they get probably a couple lucky ones. But, they probably earned their breaks.”
The Lightning were still in the game down 2-0, but a couple unlucky bounces created the insurmountable deficit. On Florida’s third goal, Reilly Smith was trying to throw a puck in front for Quinton Howden. Instead, the puck deflected off the skate of Victor Hedman, who was covering Howden, and snuck just inside the far post.
Less than two minutes later, the Lightning couldn’t clear the puck from the front of their net, and Vincent Trocheck backhanded a shot from the slot that tipped up in the air and looped over the glove of an unaware Bishop.
Just like that, it’s 4-0 Florida.
“We didn’t play very well,” Stamkos said. “They took it to us. They worked harder. They got some bounces because they deserved it.
3. DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
With 10:27 to go in the game and the Lightning trailing 4-1, Cooper made the unusual decision to pull Andrei Vasilevskiy from the Lightning goal.
Vasilevskiy entered the game for Bishop to start the third in an attempt to generate any kind of spark. Victor Hedman got the Bolts on the board at 5:39 of the third to cut the deficit to three. With Florida sitting back to protect its lead and the Bolts running out of time, Cooper opted for the extra attacker well ahead of the normal time to empty the net.
“You don’t plan on pulling the goalie that early because you’re hoping you never have to do it,” Cooper said. “But, we’re trying to win a hockey game, and it just didn’t work out.”
The ploy worked somewhat. The extra attacker allowed the Lightning to maintain possession of the puck in the Florida zone for an extended time. The Lightning got a number of good shots on net.
Unfortunately, the Panthers have an All-Star goalie too in Roberto Luongo, and he was not about to let the Bolts back into the game.
“Give Florida credit, they didn’t let us get that second goal,” Cooper said. “It would have made things a little bit dicey, and eventually they get the one on the empty net.”
After controlling the puck in the Florida zone for about five minutes, Florida was finally able to break out of its own end, and Brian Campbell lined up a slap shot from beyond the left circle that found the back of the empty net to seal the victory.
The end result wasn’t what the Lightning had hoped for, but the refusal to just pack it in during the third period and the will to fight to get back in the game is a positive sign for the Bolts going forward.