Fans in the state of Florida and throughout the hockey world were treated to one of the best games of this playoffs, or any playoffs for that matter.
Tampa Bay entered the third period up 3-2. Florida scored twice in roughly four minutes at the beginning of the third to regain the lead. The Lightning tied the game with seven minutes to go on Brayden Point's power-play goal, the Bolts' third power-play marker of the game.
And Point became the hero on a night when the Lightning had many, taking a stretch pass from Ryan McDonagh with 1:14 remaining in regulation and beating Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky through the five-hole to cap Tampa Bay's impressive 5-4 victory over the Panthers to take the opening game on the road.
As Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said following the win, the Bolts will try to get greedy and take two games in Sunrise when the teams meet Tuesday in Game 2.
Here's how Tampa Bay was able to grab a 1-0 lead in the series in front of a hostile BB&T Center crowd.
Video: TBL@FLA, Gm1: Point makes slick move for late lead
1. POINTING THE WAY TO VICTORY
The Lightning were reeling early in the third period after allowing their one-goal lead entering the period to slip away behind a bevy of ill-advised passes from their blueliners.
First, Jonathan Huberdeau intercepted a Mikhail Sergachev pass at the Bolts' offensive blue line and skated in alone on Andrei Vasilevskiy, scoring on the breakaway to tie the game 3-3 just 1:27 into the final frame. Then Huberdeau again benefitted from a Jan Rutta pass that was intercepted as he tried to exit the zone, the puck ending up on Huberdeau's stick and the crafty forward making an unreal spinning backhanded pass across the crease for a wide-open Owen Tippett to slam into the net to put Florida back in the lead.
A team with less mental fortitude might have folded at that point. After all, the Lightning exited the first period trailing 2-1, dominated the second period behind an explosive power play to regain the lead then watched it evaporate in an early third-period flurry.
But the Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They know it's never going to be easy in the playoffs. And they also know neither team's out of the contest, no matter the score.
"So many things are going to happen within the course of a series, a period, a shift, that can change momentum," Steven Stamkos said. "The game is never over. We've learned so many times in the playoffs and the runs we've been on whether it happened against us or like we saw tonight where we were able to pull one out. So many things can happen, so you just stick with it. There's no point in getting frustrated or down on each other."
The Bolts shook off the setback and mounted their comeback in the second half of the final period. After Sam Bennett was sent to the box for charging Blake Coleman, a hit Lightning head coach Jon Cooper called "predatory" after the game, Tampa Bay capitalized, Nikita Kucherov faking a shot and dishing to the slot for Brayden Point to one-time home by a badly beaten Bobrovsky.
And then in the game's closing stages, the Lightning produced a moment of brilliance to win the game. Ryan McDonagh made maybe the play of the game, blocking a shot in front of the net and then rising to his skates to spot Point streaking down the middle of the ice behind the Panthers defense. McDonagh threaded a puck onto Point's stick, and the talented centerman did the rest, beating Bobrovsky five-hole for the game-winner.
"He has the wherewithal and the toughness to get up and make the play after blocking the shot," Point marveled at McDonagh's play. "I knew that D-man kind of took the shot, so I knew I might have some space. Just went in, made a move and slipped in."
"Not a lot of doubt, Pointer on a breakaway in the playoffs has been pretty money," Stamkos added.
The Lightning rallied from a 2-1 deficit going into the first intermission and trailed 4-3 with less than 10 minutes to go and still found a way to prevail.
"I was proud of the guys," Cooper said. "We had the one-goal lead when we went into the (third) period, and we coughed it up. But there was no panic on the bench. They found a way, and they've done it some many times. It was another example tonight."
Video: TBL@FLA, Gm1: Kucherov powers Lightning's Game 1 win
2. KUCH POWERS THE POWER PLAY
On Sunday, Nikita Kucherov played in his first contest since Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final after missing the entire 2020-21 regular season because of offseason hip surgery performed December 29.
Jon Cooper said, when Kucherov's injury was first learned, the Lightning weren't planning on getting him back until at least the Second Round of the playoffs but because of his incredible work ethic and dogged determination, he was able to return for the playoff opener.
The Lightning were certainly glad to have their superstar winger back.
And so was the Bolts power play, which was good to pretty good during the regular season but was unstoppable in Game 1 against Florida.
On the Lightning's opening power play, Victor Hedman feinted a pass to Steven Stamkos in the left circle but dished off to his right for Kucherov to one-time into the back of the net for his first goal since Game 3 of last season's Stanley Cup Final.
If that had been Kucherov's only offensive contribution of the night, it would have been deemed a successful comeback.
Not by a long shot.
Later in the second period, nearing the end of the Bolts' third power play of the game, a puck in the corner kicked out to Hedman, who spotted Kucherov in the lower right circle for the Russian winger to one-time for his second power-play goal of the period.
"I just thought Kuch got better and better as that game went on," Cooper said. "I'll tell you, it's great to have him back."
Kucherov engineered Brayden Point's tying power-play goal in the third period, the Bolts' third power-play goal of the game on four opportunities, Kucherov's deception from the right circle opening a passing lane to Point and pulling Bobrovsky out of position.
"His presence, you can tell it gives the whole team a lot of confidence," Hedman said. "It's tough to see how guys are going to react after sitting out that long, but from the start he had jump, he made some great plays, had two goals and three points. That says all about what kind of player Kuch is. He's a clutch player…It's very impressive to see Kuch come out and deliver like that in the first game back. Scary part is he's only going to get better."
For the first time since February 25, 2020, the Lightning had both Stamkos and Kucherov on the power play together.
And it looked better than it has in nearly as long.
"With the way we moved the puck in practice, I was very confident coming into the game if we're going to get any looks that we would get some momentum and hopefully score goals," said Hedman, who finished with a postseason career high three assists in Game 1. "Today we felt very confident when we got out there and made some plays and some timely goals as well. Very proud of the way our power play and PK came through for us today."
Video: TBL@FLA, Gm1: Coleman backhands home SHG
3. EARLY MOMENTUM SHIFT FAVORS LIGHTNING
Florida's BB&T Center was buzzing with nearly 10,000 fans in attendance, and they were sent into near-delirium early when a puck squirted through Andrei Vasilevskiy and appeared to give the Panthers the first goal in the series on a power play.
The official behind the goal, however, took a moment to decide, then signaled no goal, the fans loudly voicing their displeasure at the reversal in their fortune. Ultimately, it was deemed Vasilevskiy had his pad deliberately pushed as he tried to trap the puck underneath, leading to the it ending up in the back of the net.
On the ensuing face-off, the Lightning gave the crowd even more reason to feel dejected.
Ryan McDonagh sent a puck up ahead off the wall into the neutral zone. Yanni Gourde picked the puck off the wall and spotted Blake Coleman sprinting toward goal. Gourde passed into his path, and Coleman buried the shorthanded opportunity, backhanding a shot past Bobrovsky at the far post to give the Lightning the opening goal in the series a few seconds after Florida thought it had scored.
Coleman netted the 14th shorthanded goal in Tampa Bay Lightning playoff history. And, in the end, it gave the Lightning a 4-1 advantage in special teams on Sunday, the Bolts scoring three power-play goals and a shorthanded goal to the Panthers' lone power-play goal.
The Lightning weren't able to sustain the momentum gained from the shorthanded goal despite controlling much of the action through the first eight minutes or so of the contest. Aleksander Barkov made a couple fantastic plays, scoring on a power-play one-timer to tie the game 1-1 at 9:41 of the opening period and setting up Carter Verhaeghe in the slot for a goal about seven minutes later to put the Panthers in front 2-1 heading into the break.
But the early momentum swing on the opening goal was critical for the Bolts. Had Florida's near-goal been allowed to stand, the Lightning might have been playing from behind the entire game.
Instead, they got an early lead and a foothold into the game, which would turn out to be an instant classic.
"It was quite a hockey game," Cooper said. "Two exceptional teams going at it. That's why it's the greatest sport in the world. We just witnessed why, that display and those two teams."