SUNRISE — In a season that was played entirely within a division and with contenders in control long before the regular-season finale, it was a little risky to read too much into statistics or head-to-head results going into the NHL playoffs.
Yes, Florida looked like an aggressive offensive team. The Panthers were fourth in the league in goals scored and averaged more shots per game (34.9) than any NHL team since Detroit in 2008-09.
But how much of that was a mirage built on 19 wins in 24 games against Columbus, Detroit and Chicago?
Turns out, not so much.
If we learned anything from Tampa Bay’s enormously entertaining 5-4 victory in Game 1 on Sunday night, it is that Florida is a different beast than what the Lightning faced in last year’s postseason.
No more Blue Jackets or Islanders slowing the game down with a trap. The Lightning and Panthers combined for nine goals in three periods in Game 1; it took 11 periods before Tampa Bay and Columbus got to nine goals in last year’s first round.
“Florida is aggressive. They stretch the ice and have a very quick transition,” Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom said. “They have a mobile defense so as soon as they grab hold of the puck in their own zone, they’ve got at least one guy on the way out of the zone. That’s the idea of stretching out the defense.”
In retrospect, one of the most impressive things about Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup last season was how the Lightning adjusted according to their opponents. Think about those teams. Boston was first in the NHL in goals-against. Dallas was second. Columbus was fourth and New York was fifth. That means the Lightning beat four of the top five defenses from the regular season.
And they beat them at their own game. When scoring two goals or fewer against the Lightning, those four teams combined to go 1-13 in the playoffs. Yet Tampa Bay managed to go 4-5 when scoring two goals or fewer. In other words, the Lightning won the defensive battles.
When you consider Tampa Bay’s reputation was a team with a lot of skill and flash, that’s a heck of a testament to knowing when and how to dial it back and play a style necessary to win.
Now the Lightning are facing a new kind of challenge with the Panthers and three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville.
“Quenneville has been a pretty aggressive coach for a while. You have to have the skill level to do it and you have to get used to it, but that’s how he’s going to play,” Engblom said. “Florida has had that team the last couple of years with guys like (Jonathan) Huberdeau and (Aleksander) Barkov who are very skilled, and they want to get the puck on their sticks as quickly as possible
“Their transition game is quick, and he wants their defense to throw the puck ahead as quickly as possible and start moving up. And that’s what the Lightning want to do, too.”
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And that’s how you end up with a game like Sunday night when neither team was able to hold the lead for more than a handful of minutes. It turned out to be Tampa Bay’s good fortune that Brayden Point didn’t score the winner until there was 74 seconds remaining on the clock because you had the feeling the Panthers would eventually have answered.
By game’s end, Florida had taken 40 shots on goal. Other than overtime games, that’s more shots than Andrei Vasilevskiy faced in the entire playoffs last year. It’s not as if the Lightning and Panthers will be able to keep up that pace the entire series, but Game 1 was a pretty good indication that we’re going to see a different mindset than we did in the last postseason.
“It was certainly exciting to be part of, and I’m sure it was for the fans in attendance,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I don’t think both teams want to play 5-4 hockey all playoffs.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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