TAMPA — Another slow start for the Lightning put them in a rut coming out of the first period Saturday night against the Panthers at Amalie Arena.
And it was a rut the Lightning could not fully escape, falling 5-3. That result, combined with the Hurricanes’ win over the Predators, rearranged the top three spots in the Central Division. Tampa Bay (60 points) fell to third, one point behind second-place Florida and two behind first-place Carolina.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said the chances were there for his team, much like they have been lately. And he thought it played better than in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win against Florida.
But, he warned, just because the team “took a step forward,” that doesn’t mean all is well.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot,” Cooper said after the loss. “We did a lot of good things, but we still gave up four and the empty net is five. So you really can’t equate that to playing a good game. It was a step forward, and we did a lot of good things, but in the end, you can’t be giving those chances up, and you can’t be giving those goals up.”
Tampa Bay logged 31 shots on goal to Florida’s 32. The Lightning won 57 percent (31 of 54) of the faceoffs, something Cooper said they would need to improve on with the absence of injured captain Steven Stamkos (he’s five behind Yanni Gourde’s team-leading 238 faceoff wins).
“I thought we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in our D-zone,” center Brayden Point said. “I thought there were stretches where we controlled the game. Passes were on the tape, guys looked more confident tonight making plays, and that’s what we need. It’s a step in the right direction. Obviously you want to win games, but I think overall we were better than we have been the past couple of games.”
The Panthers scored 8:41 into the first on a deflection from defenseman Brandon Montour. They scored again four minutes later when right wing Patric Hornqvist capitalized on their first power play, finding an open net past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Point cut it to 2-1 after the puck deflected off his skate past Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. But that momentum was stifled when Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau made it 3-1 with eight seconds remaining.
Center Frank Vatrano scored late in the second to extend the Panthers’ lead, but Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak answered less than two minutes later with a goal from the right faceoff circle, cutting the deficit to 4-2.
The momentum continued into the third as right wing Mathieu Joseph brought the Lightning within one, scoring just 1:53 into the period. But Florida left wing Anthony Duclair ended any drama with an empty-netter with 50 seconds left.
In the past 10 games, the Lightning are 5-5. Against Florida, they’re 3-3 and end the regular season with two games at Sunrise, May 8 and 10.
“They’re a really good team,” Cooper said. “They have a Hall of Fame coach (Joel Quenneville), and their team’s completely turned over. And the other thing is I think their best players are playing their best hockey. ... They’re a deeper team. They’ve got some skill, and they’re well-coached. There’s a reason why they’re up in the standings, and they deserve to be.”
Centers Alex Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have 45 points each to lead the Panthers. Hornqvist is fourth with 30, behind former Lightning center Carter Verhaeghe (35), who is week to week with an upper-body injury.
Despite their recent struggles, the Lightning see reason for optimism.
“(The result) can be frustrating, for sure,” Point said. “But I think just the fact that we were generating, we were skating, and I just liked our team’s, our group’s confidence. I thought we were better with the puck tonight ... and we were much more responsible with our guys, too.”
First Period—1, Florida, Montour 6 (Bennett), 8:41. 2, Florida, Hornqvist 14 (Gusev, Barkov), 12:31 (pp). 3, Tampa Bay, Point 18 (Palat, Sergachev), 13:40. 4, Florida, Huberdeau 15 (Bennett, Nutivaara), 19:52. Penalties—Montour, FLA (High Sticking), 4:57; Barkov, FLA (Hooking), 9:32; Tampa Bay bench, served by Maroon (Too Many Men on the Ice), 11:47.
Second Period—5, Florida, Vatrano 15, 17:34. 6, Tampa Bay, Cernak 3 (Hedman, Coleman), 19:15. Penalties—Johnson, TB (Hooking), 9:14; Johnson, TB (Hooking), 15:01.
Third Period—7, Tampa Bay, Joseph 11 (Point, Hedman), 1:53. 8, Florida, Duclair 6 (Gudas), 19:10 (en). Penalties—None.
Shots on Goal—Florida 11-11-10_32. Tampa Bay 15-7-9_31. Power-play opportunities—Florida 1 of 3; Tampa Bay 0 of 2. Goalies—Florida, Bobrovsky 15-7-2 (31 shots-28 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 26-6-1 (31-27). T—2:23. Referees—Peter MacDougall, Furman South. Linesmen—Shandor Alphonso, Jonny Murray.
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