Yeah, we know the numbers.
The Panthers had a 5-2-1 record against the Lightning in eight games during the regular season. They outscored them 14-4 over the previous three games. They finished four points ahead of them in the Central Division, earning home ice for their first-round playoff series.
Well, good for them. They hadn’t seen the Lightning at full strength.
Leading playoff scorer Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season after hip surgery. Captain Steven Stamkos was out more than a month with a lower-body injury. And Conn Smythe-winning defenseman Victor Hedman missed the final two games with an injury of his own.
With the three back in the lineup Sunday night, the Lightning for the first time all season truly resembled the team that stormed its way to the Stanley Cup a year ago.
And it was a sight to behold.
Here is how we graded the Lightning’s performance in their 5-4 win in Game 1.
Worth the wait
It took 27 seasons for the Lightning and Panthers to finally meet in a playoff series, and the teams seemed to pack decades of highlights into the first 60 minutes.
Their first postseason meeting featured physicality, spectacular scoring, special teams play truly worthy of the name, great goaltending (despite the nine total goals), and even a bit of levity when Florida forward Aleksander Barkov and Tampa Bay defenseman Jan Rutta engaged in something of a wrestling match behind the play in the first period.
The Lightning led. The Panthers tied it. Florida went ahead. Tampa Bay regained the lead.
And that was before an exhilarating back-and-forth third period in which both teams scored twice.
Just when you thought the Panthers might have the upper hand thanks to Jonathan Huberdeau’s stick magic early in the period, Brayden Point upstaged him late.
And to think, this is just Game 1.
A special player
What were the Lightning missing with Kucherov out of the lineup? What weren’t they missing?
The Lightning’s leading playoff scorer from their Stanley Cup run was engaged from the start, creating scoring chances, putting pucks on net, stealing pucks, mixing it up along the boards.
Florida took their shots at him early on, but as Kucherov showed during last season’s Cup final against Dallas, it only makes him better.
Though Sergei Bobrovsky stopped him on a first-period breakaway, Kucherov was deadly accurate on his two power-play goals, set up Point’s tying goal and was a threat all night long, from everywhere on the ice.
It had been 34 games since the Lightning scored more than one power-play goal in the same game. Sunday, they scored three on four opportunities.
With Kucherov and Stamkos joining Point and Hedman on the top unit, the Panthers had too many options to cover, and it was clear they didn’t know where to focus their attention.
Worry too much about Kucherov on the right side, and Stamkos will beat you with a slap shot from the left circle. Split your focus between Stamkos and Kucherov, and you leave yourself open to Hedman’s blasts from the point.
Overplay any of them, as Bobrovsky did on Kucherov in the third period, and Point will make you pay from the slot, as he showed by scoring the tying goal into a virtually empty net.
Physical from the start
From the first big hit early in the first period, when Patric Hornqvist and Frank Vatrano sandwiched Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev into the end boards, the Panthers set a physical tone.
Florida had 20 of the 29 total hits in the period and 54 of the 90 in the game.
It appeared to work in the Panthers’ favor early on, as MacKenzie Weegar managed to pull Kucherov into the penalty box with him after a scrum along the side boards, and Florida seemed to have the better of the 4-on-4 play that resulted from all of the extracurricular activity.
But as the game moved along, the rough stuff seemed to work against the Panthers. It resulted in four power-play opportunities for the Lightning, and Tampa Bay scored on three of them.
Grade: B, for brutal
Insult to injury
The Panthers appeared to open the scoring when Sam Bennett stuffed a puck behind Andrei Vasilevskiy just over seven minutes into the game. But the goal was disallowed when officials ruled that Bennett had pushed Vasilevskiy’s left leg pad with his stick.
If Florida coach Joel Quenneville was upset about the call, he was absolutely incensed moments later.
In what appeared to be a set play off the neutral-zone faceoff, Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh banked a pass off the side wall to Yanni Gourde, who collected the puck just inside the Panthers zone and fed Blake Coleman in the slot. Coleman beat Sergei Bobrovsky high on the glove side with a backhand shot, putting Tampa Bay ahead instead.
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