SUNRISE — The Lightning arrived at the BB&T Center well aware of the speed the Panthers possess and the confidence they’re playing with.
Tampa Bay also knew that as the defending Stanley Cup champion, it’s going to get an opponent’s best game every time out, especially on the road.
“The best of the best,” Florida coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday of the Lightning before the first of three straight games between the teams.
When the game started, the Lightning found themselves in an unfamiliar position, overwhelmed by the Panthers’ speed and ability to possess the puck. By the end of the night, Tampa Bay was licking its wounds from a 5-2 loss.
“They came out ready to play,” said center Brayden Point, who scored the Lightning goals, both on the power play. “They outskated us. They were winning races. I don’t think we were playing to our speed. We were slow to pucks, and they took advantage. I think we were a step behind all night.”
The Lightning and Panthers are first and second, respectively, in the Central Division. But their recent meetings have been one-sided, with Tampa Bay winning nine of the past 10. The Lightning also went to South Florida having won six straight overall — the longest active streak in the NHL — having outscored the opposition 18-4 over the past four games.
But the Lightning (9-2-1) allowed four goals in the first two periods against the Panthers, who showed early they’re a much different team than the one Tampa Bay had dominated.
“For the most part, we played slow tonight, for whatever reason,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “and partially they probably had something to do with that as well. But we’ve got better in us, and we’ve got to pick up our pace a little bit. And we didn’t shoot nearly enough pucks tonight either. We need to be a little more determined around their net.”
The Lightning played without captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos, who the team said is day to day with a lower-body injury. They also lost center Anthony Cirelli, who left the game favoring his arm in the third period and did not return. Cooper said Cirelli would be re-evaluated, but “it didn’t look good” coming off the ice.
The Panthers (8-1-2) had the Lightning on their heels all game, setting the pace by charging the net in the offensive zone, stretching the ice and getting behind the defense in transition. The puck possession, defensive mindset and forecheck the Lightning displayed over their first 11 games wasn’t there.
“You can see they’ve got confidence,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of the Panthers. “They’re hanging onto the puck a little bit more, and there’s certainly speed throughout their lineup. And their D is really aggressive trying to negate time and space for our forwards.”
Without Stamkos, Cooper shuffled his lines. He put Tyler Johnson on the first forward line to fill Stamkos’ spot and continued to search for the right forward combinations throughout the game.
After falling into a 2-0 hole, the Lightning cut the deficit when Brayden Point took a pass from Ondrej Palat and weaved through two Florida defenders through the slot, beating goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stick-side.
Less than two minutes later, the Panthers answered with their top-ranked power-play unit. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad scored on a one-timer from the top of the left circle with 7:06 left in the second period.
Former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe put the Panthers up 4-1 with 5:05 left in the second when his centering pass caromed off Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s skate and into the net.
Point scored his second power-play goal of the game in the opening minute of the third, skating wide across the right circle and beating Bobrovsky high, inside the post.
Without Stamkos and Cirelli, two of their top faceoff players, the Lightning struggled to posses the puck down the stretch with an extra attacker. Brett Connolly’s empty-net goal with a minute left finished the scoring.
“At the end of the day, you can control your effort and your pace and your sharpness with and without the puck, and I think we were off there,” McDonagh said. “Give them credit. They were consistent the whole game, pushing the pace and playing us hard. We can certainly up our game the next time against these guys.”
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