SUNRISE — No offense to the Florida Panthers, but this ain’t about you.
No matter how much Tampa Bay’s neighbors to the south might think this is a rivalry and seem desperate to draw blood, this series was always going to be about the journey of a championship team returning to the postseason after a season of hardships.
The Lightning? They’re still the NHL’s star attraction.
The Panthers? Until proving otherwise, they’re just the extras.
Yes, great teams really can flip a switch in the postseason. It didn’t matter that Florida passed the Lightning in the division standings, and it didn’t matter that the Panthers blew out Tampa Bay in the final two games of the regular season. It didn’t matter that Florida stormed into the playoffs with 10 wins in its last 12 games, or that the Lightning were a .500 team for much of April.
For a lot of these Tampa Bay players, the season’s first six months are just a prelude. They’ve reached the conference finals in four of the last six seasons and know exactly what it’s going to take to still be playing in mid-summer.
You want fast-paced and furious? The Lightning can do that, and beat Florida 5-4 in Game 1. You want pushing and shoving and acting like tough guys? The Panthers tried that in Game 2 on Tuesday night and the Lightning won 3-1. If the Panthers thought it was just the misfortune of special teams that cost them in the playoff opener, the Lightning dissuaded them of that notion in Game 2.
Forty-eight hours into the postseason, Florida’s home-ice has been wasted.
“We’ve been here before,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “If you want to have a long run and give yourself a chance, there are going to be times you have to win the 5-4 game and times when you have to win the 2-1 game.”
This is the maturation of a team. This is understanding the difference between pounding your chest and raising the Stanley Cup. As entertaining as Sunday night’s game was, the Lightning were far more impressive in Game 2. They made a pretty good team look beaten and bewildered.
While both teams spent plenty of time in the penalty box in the opener, the tone was much different on Tuesday night even though the Panthers seemed more intent on antagonizing than scoring.
Bit players like Ryan Lomberg spent much of his ice time trying to pick fights with Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. MacKenzie Weegar drew a roughing penalty for a silly hit on Blake Coleman in the final seconds of the second period with every official standing a few feet away.
“Game 1, there is a lot of emotion, teams are trying to set the tone. You can expect it to be a little more feisty,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “Game 2, guys are trying to play a little more tactical. That was certainly a game plan for us, to stay out of that stuff.”
The stars have been center stage. Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat have all scored goals.
But there have been so many little moments that have mattered. Ryan McDonagh with a block and pass that set up Point’s game-winner on Sunday. Anthony Cirelli fighting for the puck near the blue line and sending the pass to Alex Killorn that led to the first goal on Tuesday. Blake Coleman getting in front of Carter Verhaeghe’s stick to disrupt a dangerous chance in front of the net when the score was 2-1 late in Game 2.
That’s the beauty of this team. For all the flash and dash of earlier Lightning rosters, this group has just enough grit in its game to not give an inch when an opponent goes into bully mode.
“We try to stick to the same plan whether (we’re) up or down,” said McDonagh. “You know you have to make some crucial plays defensively when the team is going to push, trying to get back in the game.
“You need your goalie to step up, you need guys who are going to sacrifice their bodies to make some blocks and take hits to make plays. Every one of those guys in the locker room is willing to do that. So when you know that you’ve got each other’s back out there and everybody is pulling the same direction, that’s a good feeling.”
There’s still plenty of work to do. The Lightning are only halfway through the first round, and Florida has enough offense to change the direction of a series in a hurry.
But after two games, we have been reminded of what we already knew:
Until further notice, the Lightning are still the team to beat.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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