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Nikita Kucherov’s healed hip is a pain in the neck to the Florida Panthers.
And Brayden Point provided the two final and crushing blows with the tying and winning goals in the third period.
The Tampa Bay Lightning showed why they are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, rallying past the Florida Panthers 5-4 in the first game of their opening-round playoff series on Sunday night at the BB&T Center.
Game 2 is set for Tuesday night.
Kucherov, playing his first game of the season following December hip surgery, scored two goals and added one assist. All three of Kucherov’s points came on the power play.
The Panthers got goals from Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, Jonathan Huberdeau and Owen Tippett in a physical game that featured numerous skirmishes before 9,646 enthusiastic fans.
Florida also got 34 saves from goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who — like Kucherov — is a native of Russia. Keith Yandle and Sam Bennett added two assists each for the Panthers.
Andrei Vasilevskiy had 35 saves for the Lightning.
The Panthers are now in a familiar spot, and here’s why: The last time they won the opening game of a playoff series was in 1997, against the New York Rangers. The last time the Panthers won a playoff series was in 1996.
On Sunday, the Panthers were playing against Tampa Bay’s “A Team” as Kucherov as well as Steven Stamkos returned to the ice. Stamkos, who played his first game since a 16-game absence to heal a lower-body injury, had an assist on Kucherov’s first goal.
Despite the loss, the Panthers did a good job of handling the emotional peaks and valleys of the first period.
The Panthers had a goal taken off the board with 7:26 expired in the first period, and here’s what happened: Bennett and Patric Hornqvist were on the doorstep, jabbing at the puck. Bennett got the would-be goal, but it was waved off for goalie interference on Hornqvist, angering Panthers players, coaches and fans.
Tampa Bay, perhaps preying on the Panthers’ disappointment, got on the board just 16 seconds later on Blake Coleman’s shorthanded goal. The goal happened quickly: faceoff win, Ryan McDonagh pass forward, Yanni Gourde toss ahead, Coleman breakaway backhander.
But the persistent Panthers got a goal that stuck on the board just two minutes later as Barkov scored on a power-play blast from the right circle off a cross-ice pass from Jonathan Huberdeau. Hornqvist provided the screen.
Seven minutes later, the Panthers struck again, taking a 2-1 lead on Verhaeghe’s one-timer. Barkov tossed a centering pass back to Verhaeghe, who cashed in from the high slot.
Tampa Bay, however, tied the score with 4:58 elapsed in the second period on Kucherov’s one-timer from the right circle. Victor Hedman got the primary assist, thanks to his no-look pass to Kucherov, who got his shot past a stickless Forsling.
Kucherov struck again with 5:09 left in the second.
Florida took a 4-3 lead in the third on Huberdeau’s goal and then a Huberdeau spin-move assist to Tippett, who fired on an empty left side of the net with just 4:09 left in the third.
All the Panthers had to do was hold on … but they could not stop Point, who scored with &;00 left in the third and again with just 74 seconds remaining in the game.
▪ Defenseman Anton Stralman was among the Panthers’ healthy scratches. He is one of Florida’s most experienced players with 108 playoff appearances, and he had three assists in his two most recent games this year.