SUNRISE — This wasn’t the way the Lightning wanted to begin their string of games against the Panthers.
The Lightning were outmanned and outplayed in a 5-1 loss Saturday night at the BB&T Center, and while there were stakes to the game, they weren’t as high as the stakes will be in the teams’ upcoming playoff-opening series.
The win moved the Panthers into second place in the Central Division, two points ahead of the third-place Lightning (36-16-3). Monday’s game between the teams, the regular-season finale for both, will determine the final seeding and which team gets home-ice advantage for their playoff series.
Without three starting defensemen — including Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman — the Lightning were far from full strength Saturday night. Hedman, who had played in all 54 games this season and had 25:03 of ice time in Friday’s 5-2 home loss to Dallas, sat out with a lower-body injury. Lock-down defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who left late in Friday’s game, was out with an upper-body injury. Jan Rutta, who returned Friday after missing 18 games due to injury, was sidelined again with a lower-body injury.
Coach Jon Cooper was cryptic about the injuries. He wouldn’t say whether Hedman’s injury was existing or new. When asked whether the three would be back for the beginning of the postseason, he said, “I don’t know. I hope so. We’re planning on it. We’ll have to see.”
The start date for the postseason hasn’t been announced.
The defensemen’s absences were well noted, as the Lightning were forced to play a much more defensive game with many players forced into unfamiliar roles. Typically on the right side, defenseman Luke Schenn played on the left. Defenseman Fredrik Claesson made his Lightning debut, paired with trade-deadline acquisition David Savard. With four games of NHL experience under his belt, rookie Ben Thomas was called on to play.
“Obviously, you take the best defenseman in the world out of your lineup (Hedman) and another unbelievable player (McDonagh) who eats huge minutes and is great defensively and on the (penalty kill), obviously you’re not going to replace those guys,” Schenn said.
“But other guys stepped up.”
Both teams were looking to establish their physicality in a game full of pushing, shoving and jawing after the whistle. Schenn and Panthers forward Ryan Lomberg exchanged punches during a second period that ended with several scrums after the buzzer. The teams combined for 136 penalty minutes on 32 penalties in the game, including five fighting majors and seven game misconducts.
Between the punches, Panthers forward Alex Wennberg recorded a hat trick, his third goal coming with 6:22 left in the third period on a puck that goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy couldn’t track once it deflected off Savard.
Vasilevskiy allowed a season-high five goals on 35 shots.
Schenn’s goal 4:52 into the second period cut the Panthers’ lead to 2-1, and the Lightning started to control the puck better as the period progressed. But before the end of the period, Florida had scored two goals in two minutes.
The first of those goals came on the strangest of plays.
Skating behind the net, Wennberg looked to put the puck in front, but his pass hit off Savard’s skate and the puck shot into the air. Vasilevskiy couldn’t find the puck as it made a crazy backspin in the air and landed behind him and in for a goal.
Defenseman Erik Cernak tried to bat the puck out of the air but whiffed.
“I wouldn’t say (that goal) was a backbreaker, but that was a tough one,” Cooper said. “I think the tougher one was when they scored right after that. We won the faceoff, we had full possession of the puck, and then we just turn it over and get scored on.
Jonathan Huberdeau hit on a backhand shot from the slot with 5:07 left in the second.
“I think those two (goals) together, right at the end of a period, that made it a little tough on us,” Cooper said.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
First Period—1, Florida, Wennberg 14 (Weegar, Forsling), 11:44. Penalties—Lomberg, FLA (Hooking), 15:25; Claesson, TB (Hooking), 18:41.
Second Period—2, Florida, Bennett 10 (Huberdeau, Barkov), 3:07 (pp). 3, Tampa Bay, Schenn 2 (Goodrow, Gourde), 4:52. 4, Florida, Wennberg 15 (Vatrano), 12:54. 5, Florida, Huberdeau 20 (Bennett), 14:53. Penalties—Cernak, TB (Tripping), 2:21; Florida bench, served by Marchment (Instigator), 6:17; Lomberg, FLA (Fighting), 6:17; Lomberg, FLA (Instigator), 6:17; Schenn, TB (Fighting), 6:17; Palat, TB (Cross Checking), 10:41; Vatrano, FLA (High Sticking), 16:12; Gourde, TB (Roughing), 20:00; Montour, FLA (Roughing), 20:00; Bennett, FLA (Roughing), 20:00.
Third Period—6, Florida, Wennberg 16 (Tippett, Forsling), 13:38. Penalties—Schenn, TB (Cross Checking), 4:58; Coleman, TB (Slashing), 5:56; Yandle, FLA (Slashing), 5:56; Tampa Bay bench, served by Johnson (Roughing), 9:58; Claesson, TB (Misconduct), 9:58; Bennett, FLA (Misconduct), 9:58; Cirelli, TB (Misconduct), 9:58; Maroon, TB (Roughing), 13:58; Maroon, TB (Elbowing), 13:58; Florida bench, served by Tippett (Slashing), 13:58; Montour, FLA (Fighting), 13:58; Lomberg, FLA (Misconduct), 13:58; Gourde, TB (Misconduct), 13:58; Montour, FLA (Misconduct), 13:58; Goodrow, TB (Misconduct), 17:17; Acciari, FLA (Fighting), 17:17; Tampa Bay bench, served by Point (Cross Checking), 17:17; Goodrow, TB (Fighting), 17:17; Weegar, FLA (Roughing), 18:42.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 13-14-2_29. Florida 14-11-10_35.
Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 1; Florida 1 of 7.
Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 31-9-1 (35 shots-30 saves). Florida, Bobrovsky 19-8-2 (29-28).
A—5,040 (19,250). T—2:35.
Referees—Frederick L’Ecuyer, Kelly Sutherland. Linesmen—Jonny Murray, Pierre Racicot.
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