Panthers blow Game 1 to reigning-champion Tampa with missed opportunities, late lapses

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The Florida Panthers wanted their shot at the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. They wanted a chance at redemption against the defending Stanley Cup champion and swore they’d learned from their old mistakes and first-round loss to the Lightning a year ago.

Tampa Bay, however, is still the champion and played like one in key moments of Game 1 on Tuesday to beat the Panthers, 4-1, in Sunrise.

“It’s just the little things in the game and that’s what they do so well,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “That’s why they’ve won a couple Cups.”

The Lightning won the special-teams battle by going 3 for 6 on its power play and shutting down the Panthers’, won in the third period after Florida mostly controlled the first two, and even won a pair of challenges in the third to bury the Panthers and snatch away home-ice advantage.

The difference between Tampa Bay and Florida was not vast — not in the regular season, when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers finished 12 points ahead of its in-state rival, and not now — and it proved advantageous for the battle-tested Lightning.

Tampa Bay now has a 1-0 series lead and is just nine wins away from winning a third straight Stanley Cup. Florida — which, until Saturday, hadn’t even won a postseason series since its improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals in just its third season of existence — has now dropped nine straight Game 1s.

At even strength, the Panthers more than held their own with an advantage in shot attempts, shots on goal and scoring chances. On the power play, their ongoing futility bit them — they went 0 for 3 and are now 0 of 21 in these Stanley Cup playoffs — and the Lightning’s excellence elevated it to victory.

Florida couldn’t stay out of the penalty box and couldn’t keep Tampa Bay off the board forever. The Lightning scored four straight in the final 23:38 to rally past the Panthers, who have now blown leads in three straight Game 1s.

“We had them where we wanted pretty much the whole game,” defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “We’ve just got to stay out of the box and keep it going.”

Ultimately, it amounted to a missed opportunity for Florida. The Panthers outshot Tampa Bay, 23-18, with a 23-9 advantage in scoring chances and an 8-3 edge in high-danger chances in the first two periods, even though they spent 5:25 on the penalty kill and only two minutes on the power play.

Still, they were tied 1-1 at the second intermission because of a power-play equalizer by Lightning right wing Corey Perry with 3:38 left in the period.

The game-tying sequence was vintage Tampa Bay. Star right wing Nikita Kucherov drew a borderline penalty from MacKenzie Weegar, holding the star defenseman’s stick to accentuate a potential hooking call, and then deked star defenseman Aaron Ekblad off his feet in transition to tee up Perry. The game-tying goal came just seconds after star center Aleksander Barkov missed the net altogether on an aggressive shorthanded rush.

“I didn’t like the decision-making shorthanded, trying to make something out of nothing and they’re too good of a power play to give them free looks like that,” Brunette said. “You know what they do. They’re a veteran team, they’ve been in these kind of situations, they sell it pretty good and we just have to be a little aware of that, and maybe sell it ourselves a little bit.”

Florida Panthers drop Game 1 to Tampa Bay, 4-1. Time for Huberdeau and Barkov to step up | Opinion

Instead of leading by a goal or two at the start of the third period, Florida found itself stuck in a battle with the Lightning and Tampa Bay was perfectly suited for it. Lightning forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored the game-winning goal with 16:25 left on a scramble off an offensive-zone faceoff and Tampa Bay finally swung play in crunch time.

In the third period, the Lightning outshot the Panthers, 18-12, and led 13-2 in high-danger chances and scored twice on power plays to ice the game in the final 4:06, including one after a failed challenge by Brunette.

“We were a little flat at the start of the third, kind of got ourselves in trouble,” Brunette said. “They’re a veteran team that aren’t going to open the door for you.”

Although a comeback never came, Florida briefly thought it had one. With 8:09 remaining, Anthony Duclair fired a puck into the back of the net on a power play after a point shot by Barkov flew high into the air and landed in a favorable position for the winger to beat star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper quickly challenged the goal, though, and it was obvious Barkov’s shot had gone out of play. A game-tying goal — potentially Duclair’s second of the game — was gone and so was the Panthers best shot at forcing overtime.

Florida, of course, put together the best season in franchise history this year by coming back as frequently as anyone in NHL history and it had another one in the first round of the Cup playoffs.

After Game 1 of Round 2, the Panthers know the blueprint. The problem is, for the last two years, they haven’t been able to execute it.

“We had the lead almost the whole game and a couple chances,” Duclair said. “We know how to win against this team. We’ve done it before.”

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