SUNRISE — Rivalries aren’t made on one game alone, but maybe this is the beginning.
The buzz going into the Lightning’s first-round playoff opener against the Florida Panthers centered on whether these teams were finally fit to be true rivals.
And if the Lightning’s 5-4 comeback win at the BB&T Center — a game in which the defending Stanley Cup champs were stretched to the limit by their upstart cross-state neighbors — is an example of what is to come, this will be an exciting series and possibly the making of something big.
“When you face teams consistently in the playoffs, that’s when you get that rivalry,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “(The Panthers have) been pushing the envelope the past couple of years and they’re a contender for sure. If Game 1 is any indication, this is going to be a great series, a long series and we have to be up for the task.”
The Lightning rallied from a one-goal, third-period deficit with two goals by center Brayden Point in the final seven minutes, including his game-winning score with 1:14 remaining on a breakaway. This was the fourth playoff game in NHL history to have four lead changes.
“I just had the best seat in the house for it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And it was quite a hockey game, two exceptional teams going at it. And that’s why it’s the greatest sport in the world. We just witnessed why, that display of those two teams.”
They were no doubt rejuvenated by the return of star wing Nikita Kucherov, who scored two power-play goals and assisted on Point’s first goal of the night, which also came on the power play. After missing the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery, Kucherov was playing in his first game in nearly eight months since hoisting the Stanley Cup in the bubble in Edmonton.
Following an atypical regular season, one that ended with the Lightning banged up and not playing their best hockey, Tampa Bay flipped the switch when the postseason spotlight turned on. Their playoff experience, cultivated through their Cup run last year and falling short before that, showed.
“We talked about composure, and that was kind of the theme of last year’s run,” Stamkos said. “So many things are going to happen in the course of a series ... that can change momentum. We’ve learned so many times throughout the playoffs and the runs that we’ve been on whether it happened against us or like we saw tonight where we were able to pull one out.”
Sunday’s opener also extended the physicality of the team’s final two regular-season meetings here with a mix of hard checks and post-whistle shoving scrums. But the Lightning had the last laugh in part thanks to Kucherov.
Thirty-five minutes into the game, any questions about whether Kucherov would be able to jump right into a playoff atmosphere were answered. He already had danced around the right circle with two goal celebrations.
Kucherov tied the score 4:58 into the second period. Off the faceoff in the right circle of the Panthers’ zone, Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling’s stick snapped in half. In one motion, Kucherov calmly cleared away the remnants of Forsling’s stick, took a feed from Victor Hedman and rifled a one-timer into the net from the right circle.
Kucherov’s second goal came after Point chased the puck into the corner and took two Panthers with him, got it out to Hedman, who skated across the front of the crease drawing attention before passing off to Kucherov below the right dot.
The Lightning went into the third leading by one — but quickly fell behind 4-3 after two quick Florida goals — forward Jonathan Huberdeau scored the tying goal and assisted on Owen Tippett’s go-ahead score.
The Lightning tied with seven minutes left in the third with a third power-play goal as Kucherov bluffed a shot from the right circle, then slid the puck to Point in the slot.
Point then took a stretch pass from defenseman Ryan McDonagh through the neutral zone after a blocked shot and beat Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on a breakaway goal through the five hole.
“Not a lot of doubt,” Stamkos said. “Pointer on the breakaway in the playoffs has been pretty money.”
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