The top two teams in the Central Division squared off Thursday night in Sunrise when the Florida Panthers hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center.
The Lightning were expected to be a top contender again this season coming off the franchise's second ever Stanley Cup championship in 2020.
The Panthers were hoping to be good after making a number of changes in the offseason.
Florida suffered just one regulation loss through its first 10 games in 2020-21 and was off to one of its fastest starts in franchise history. The Panthers looked at Thursday's matchup as a chance to validate their start and prove themselves a contender too against one of the NHL's best.
That desire showed throughout in a 5-2 victory over the Lightning, a game Florida never trailed and never lost their grip on despite a couple pushes of resistance from the Bolts.
"They were a pretty determined group. I'm sure they had this one circled for a while," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said following the loss.
Tampa Bay saw its six-game win streak and seven-game point run come to an end in Sunrise. And Florida pulled to within a point of the division-leading Lightning following its resounding win.
The Bolts will get two more cracks at the Panthers shortly with another game in Sunrise Saturday followed by a one-off game at AMALIE Arena Monday.
Video: TBL Recap: Lightning's winning streak snapped
1. A STEP BEHIND
Florida opened the game at a pace the Lightning haven't seen all season.
The Bolts never really caught up either, despite their coaching staff warning them leading up to the game this would be a different Panthers team they faced then the one they saw in an exhibition in Toronto before the 2020 Playoffs, a game the Lightning won handily 5-0.
"We knew the game plan coming in," said Brayden Point, who scored both Lightning goals on the power play to extend his scoring run to seven games. "I think we were a step behind early on and I think maybe that's the story all night. I don't know if we ever got that same speed."
The Panthers were relentless from the opening puck drop. They never gave the Lightning any time and space. They turned Tampa Bay over with regularity. They kept the puck buried in the Bolts' end for long stretches.
Their tenacity paid off almost immediately, Frank Vatrano capping a series of three Grade-A chances in close for the Panthers with his second goal of the season to put Florida in front 1-0 at 8:56 of the opening period.
The Panthers held the lead the rest of the way.
"They came out ready to play," Point said. "They outskated us. They were winning races. I thought we weren't playing to our speed. We were slow to pucks. Yeah, they took advantage."
The Panthers never let up. They came at the Lightning with wave after wave. At times, Tampa Bay seemed helpless to stop them. Florida pushed its lead to 2-0 8:31 into the second when Alex Wennberg finished off a 2-on-1 with a one-timer on the back post.
It felt like the Lightning gave up more odd-man rushes against Florida than they did in the first 11 games of the season combined.
"They came with a lot of pace and executed really well too while playing at a fast pace," Ryan McDonagh said. "We definitely kind of fed into that with some sloppy play and turnovers, but at the end of the day, you can control your effort and your pace and your sharpness without the puck. I think we were off there. Credit them, they were consistent the whole game pushing the pace and playing us hard. We certainly can up our game the next time around against these guys."
Tampa Bay got on the board in the second period, Point and Ondrej Palat working a give-and-go on a power play that ended with Point splitting a pair of penalty killers and depositing a shot past Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to give the Lightning life.
That life was snuffed less than two minutes later when Aaron Ekblad bombed a shot from the left circle on a Florida power play to re-establish the two-goal lead at 3-1 for the Panthers.
A couple minutes later, the deficit grew to 4-1 when former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe threw a puck to the front of the net that caromed off the skate of Erik Cernak and went into goal.
"They stuck with it, put a lot of pucks to the net and their forwards are big, strong and fast," McDonagh said. "It's a good group over there, and we're anxious to get another crack at them here in a couple days."
Video: TBL@FLA: Point goes top shelf to make it 4-2 in 3rd
2. A GLIMMER OF HOPE
Despite trailing 4-1 after 40 minutes, the Lightning were never completely out of the game.
In the third period, the Bolts got a much better start, aided by a power-play carryover from the second, and Point again tallied on the man-advantage with a tough-angle shot over the shoulder of Bobrovsky as he sped down the right wing to cut Florida's lead to 4-2.
From there, the Lightning went to work trying to establish some semblance of their game. They held possession of the puck for longer stretches as they cut down on some of their turnovers. They were able to keep the puck in the offensive zone for a couple cycles at a time to make the Panthers defend more than they did in the first two periods.
The problem for the Lightning, though, is once they had the puck in the offensive zone, they didn't shoot it enough to make it count. The Bolts only fired off 21 shots at Bobrovsky, a season low, and didn't test the Florida netminder nearly enough to make him uncomfortable.
"There were spurts in the game we were okay, but, for the most part, we played slow tonight," Cooper said. "I don't know for whatever reason, and partially they probably had something to do with that as well. We've got better in us. We've got to pick up our pace a little bit. We didn't shoot near enough pucks either. When you're going to give them an easy night in their defensive zone, we have to be a little bit more determined around their net."
The Lightning had the better of the possession in the third period but couldn't chip away at the deficit any further. Brett Connolly put the game out of reach for good with his empty-net goal with a minute remaining for the 5-2 final.
The hope is the Lightning found a game plan against Florida in the third period they can take with them into Saturday's rematch and beyond. The Panthers exposed some holes in the Lightning's game. Now it's incumbent on the Lightning to shore up those deficient areas and find a way to counter what Florida did well Thursday night.
"A sour taste in our mouth right now," McDonagh said. "We want to get back to that winning feeling and getting back to…our recipe for success, and we didn't have it enough tonight. Great challenge, they got some confidence there winning game one, so we've got to push even harder here and play a lot sharper."
Video: Jon Cooper on the loss to FLA
3. CONCERNING INJURY NEWS
The Lightning were playing shorthanded before the puck was even dropped on Thursday's contest with the news Steven Stamkos would miss the game with a lower-body injury.
Stamkos, the Bolts' leading goal scorer, is listed as day-to-day.
"Stammer was unable to go today," Cooper said. "Hopefully here soon, but he's day-to-day right now."
Stamkos' injury doesn't sound long term, and hopefully he'll be back for Saturday's rematch.
The Bolts might not be as fortunate with Anthony Cirelli.
The Selke Trophy candidate exited the ice in the middle of a shift in the third period and seemed to be favoring his arm as he skated off. He went straight down the tunnel to the locker room and wasn't seen again the rest of the game.
Cooper didn't sound upbeat when asked the extent of Cirelli's injury in his post-game media availability.
"Tony, we'll have to evaluate here. It didn't look great when he came off," Cooper admitted.
The Lightning will practice Friday in South Florida ahead of Saturday's rematch. Hopefully, we'll get an update on the health of both Stamkos and Cirelli following the training session and news more positive than what we heard Thursday night.
The Lightning, of course, are already missing Nikita Kucherov for the regular season as he recovers from offseason hip surgery. Mitchell Stephens won't be back for a while either as he recovers from a lower-body injury suffered in a loss January 23 at Columbus.
The Lightning can ill afford to lose arguably their best two-way forward in Cirelli for an extended period too.