For all the great expectations surrounding the Lightning this season, captain Steven Stamkos said it all mattered little unless the team could back it up on the ice.
And on opening night Tampa Bay did just that, beating the Panthers 3-2 in overtime in front of a sellout crowd of 19,204 at Amalie Arena on Thursday. Despite outshooting Florida 32-21 and outchancing it thanks to seven power plays, the Lightning found itself in a tie game most of the night.
But defenseman Victor Hedman delivered the winner, scoring on a breakaway just over a minute into overtime on a four-on-three power play. Hedman beat the Panthers on a line change, his rush set up by a long pass from goalie Ben Bishop.
The Lightning had taken the lead at 2-1 with just under 13 minutes left in regulation on a power-play goal by Ryan Callahan, who knocked in a loose puck in the crease at the end of a five-on-three. But the Panthers tied it on a delayed-penalty call a few minutes later on a goal by center Jonathan Huberdeau.
There were several encouraging signs for Tampa Bay. Stamkos looked like his old self, clicking on a line with 2014 Calder Trophy finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Bishop, making his first career opening-night start, was solid in net after offseason right wrist surgery. Preseason standouts Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov continued to buzz around the offensive zone. And the Lightning, hoping to be a better defensive team, held the Panthers to 21 shots.
Florida struck first, five minutes into the second period, when defenseman Erik Gudbranson ripped a slap shot from the point that beat Bishop glove side. The Lightning answered with a power-play goal two minutes later. After fumbling through its first two power plays, Tampa Bay looked much better on the third, with center Valtteri Filppula faking a shot before passing the puck to Johnson, who redirected it from the left circle off goalie Roberto Luongo and into the net.
Palat had a great scoring chance in the second but was stopped on a breakaway by Luongo. After the play, Palat mixed it up with Panthers enforcer Shawn Thornton, ending up with a bloody lip and matching penalty.
But the biggest hits were from Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas, whose elbow or shoulder connected with the head of the Panthers' Scottie Upshall in the second period. Upshall, who had his head down on the play, was on the ice for a few minutes but was okay, and no penalty was called. In the third, Gudas took out this year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Aaron Ekblad, with a hip check along the boards.
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Lightning vs. Senators, 7 p.m. Saturday, Amalie Arena
TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM