The Tampa Bay Lightning were less than a minute away Saturday from their second-straight victory and consecutive wins for the first time since winning three in a row to open the season.
Nothing comes easy, however, for this Lightning team.
Aaron Ekblad tied the game with 37 seconds left to force overtime, and after a scoreless 3-on-3, the Panthers prevailed in a shootout to win the first of five meetings between the Bolts and Cats this season.
The Lightning won’t have to wait long to get another crack at Florida; they travel to Sunrise for the return leg of the home-and-home on Monday.
Saturday’s game was fast-paced, hard-hitting, contentious and tense.
It was also another wasted opportunity for a Lightning team needing to string together points to solidify its position among the top half of the Eastern Conference.
Three Things we learned from a frustrating result ahead.
1. SHOOTOUT SLUMP CONTINUES
It really is mind-boggling that a team with as many offensively-skilled players as the Lightning could struggle so mightily in shootouts.
But it’s a very real problem for the Bolts.
All three takers – Victor Hedman, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula – failed to convert their shootout attempt in Saturday’s 5-4 loss to Florida. The Lightning, in fact, haven’t made a shootout shot this season, going 0-for-6 overall.
Last season, the Lightning weren’t much better, going 3-5 in eight shootout games and converting just 5-of-21 shootout shots.
The fact the Lightning sent a defenseman, a bottom six forward and a center known more for his passing than shooting prowess onto the ice for the shootout shows just how deep into the well the team is searching to find anyone who can convert consistently.
Asked about his selections following the game, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said he “went with a couple guys that have been hot in practice.”
“(Filppula’s) a 25 percent shooter,” he said. “(Hedman’s) scored in shootouts before. Boyle had been really hot in practice. We’re not just throwing a dart out there picking our shooters. Maybe that’s what we’ll have to do next time.”
2. NAMESTNIKOV SHINES ON TOP LINE
Before Saturday’s game, Cooper said young forward Vladislav Namestnikov had earned his ice time and deserved a chance to keep skating on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan following a solid performance with those two Thursday against Calgary.
Namestnikov continued to make his case versus Florida.
In the second period with the game tied, Namestnikov found a soft spot in the slot and Stamkos slipped a pass from the left boards onto his stick. With Luongo stumbling and sitting on the ground, Namestnikov shot into open part of the net to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
“I shot from underneath the defenseman,” Namestnikov said. “I didn’t see (Luongo) had gone down. I just tried to get the shot through.”
Later in the game, score tied again, Namestnikov cleaned up a loose puck in the crease that Stamkos had flipped out front. With J.T. Brown trying to get his stick on the puck but being tied up by Florida’s Aaron Ekblad, Namestnikov snuck in from behind to pop the puck into the net.
Namestnikov recorded just the second multi-goal game of his career.
“Vladdy’s just worked really hard,” Cooper said. “He’s been in pro hockey a couple of years, and he’s growing into himself a little bit. He’s having an opportunity to play with Stammer and Callahan, and I thought they were really good tonight, generated chances and Vladdy picked up a couple goals.”
3. TOUGH LUCK LOSS
The Lightning have played a handful of games this season where their performance warranted more than the result.
Saturday was another one of those games.
The Bolts all-but sealed up two points when Namestnikov scored his second goal of the game at 9:56 of the third period to give Tampa Bay a 4-3 lead. At that point, it seemed the Lightning would clamp down on the Panthers defensively much like they did two nights earlier versus Calgary and ride the one-goal lead to victory.
The Bolts were on their way too until an unlucky deflection in their own end led to a delay of game penalty on Ryan Callahan with 43 seconds remaining.
“A rolling puck, it rolls off Hedman’s stick, and then it goes to Callahan and rolls off his stick and it’s out and now we’re short,” Cooper said. “…It was a really unfortunate last little bit to the game and a game I thought we played pretty well.”
Six seconds after Callahan was sent to the box and with the Panthers net empty creating a 6-on-4 scenario, Aaron Ekblad blasted a shot from inside the blue line that was tipped on its way to goal and beat the Bolts’ Ben Bishop.
“The guys are battling, they just don’t have a ton to show for it,” Cooper said. “That’s the way it happens.”
Eventually, these losses will turn the other way for the Lightning.
It’s just frustrating it hasn’t happened yet.