SUNRISE — Panthers coach Joel Quenneville compared the Lightning getting Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos back for the postseason to playing a game of Texas Hold ‘Em — and promptly being dealt a pair of aces.
Especially on the power play.
“It was always excellent,” Quenneville said leading up to his team’s first-round playoff series with Tampa Bay. “Now with those guys, it goes to the next level.”
Just one game into the series, he already knows how difficult a matchup the Lightning power play can present with the return of the top two offensive weapons.
Tampa Bay notched three power-play goals in four man-advantage opportunities in the 5-4 win over the Panthers on Sunday, with Kucherov scoring twice and assisting on the third goal netted by Brayden Point.
Without Kucherov for the entire regular season, the Lightning’s power-play unit was a work in progress. They tried putting Point in his right circle spot, then moved forward Ondrej Palat there. When Stamkos was out for the season’s final month, the unit stalled to a 14.2 percent success rate in the 16 games (the 22.3 season rate ranked ninth in the league) and went just 2-for-25 over the final seven games of the regular season.
With Kucherov and Stamkos together for the first time in 15 months, Tampa Bay’s three power-play goals Sunday were its most since March 7.
“Kuch and Stammer, they’re world-class players,” Point said. “You can never really replace those guys when they’re out. We had a couple of days to work on some power plays and then right away it’s started clicking in the practices, and it’s good to see it pay off.”
The toughest part for the Lightning was getting a man advantage in Game 1. As had been the case over the course of the regular season, the teams were remarkably even playing 5-on-5, with the Panthers leading in shots (26-25) and scoring changes (19-17) in those situations.
Three sets of matching penalties in the first period created some early 4-on-4s. Blake Coleman scored Tampa Bay’s first goal short-handed, and the Lightning survived a 14-second 5-on-3 disadvantage, but allowed a goal on the remaining Panthers power play in the period.
The Lightning didn’t get their first power play until a holding call on Sam Bennett 4:27 into the second period. But once they had their opportunity, the unit forced the Panthers into a pick-your-poison situation on the penalty kill.
Florida kept Stamkos, who led the team with 10 power-play goals in the regular season, off the scoresheet, but he had his chances, getting five of his six shot attempts on the power play. Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky swept in to swallow two strong shots from Stamkos delivered from the left circle.
On Kucherov’s first goal, he passed to Stamkos along the top of the left circle. Defenseman Victor Hedman took a pass from Stamkos skating toward the high slot and passed to Kucherov, who was wide open for a one-timer just below the right dot
Hedman swooped in toward the net on Kucherov’s second goal — taking a pass from Point, who had won a puck battle in the near corner — then drawing attention while skating between the circles in front of the net. Hedman put the puck right at Kucherov’s left skate with open ice in front of him, and Kucherov buried a snap shot in the back of the net.
Kucherov had the Panthers’ full attention on the Lightning’s third power-play goal. As he sold a fake slap shot when Hedman delivered a pass to his feet at the right circle, Point slipped around traffic through the slot, and Kucherov slid a pass right to Point for an open look and the tying goal in the third period.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Hedman said. “When you have those threats on either side, you’ve just got to make sure you move the puck well and put in an area where they can either shoot it or pass it. We’ve had some chemistry in the past. ... With the way we moved the puck in practice, I was very confident going into the game that if we’re going to get any looks, that we could get some momentum and hopefully score goals.”
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