SUNRISE — As Lightning players disappeared down the tunnel following a 4-1 loss to the Panthers in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, rubber rats strewn across the ice at the BB&T Center, the crowd gave a standing ovation to Florida’s newly crowned series savior.
After their other two goaltenders allowed 18 goals in the first four games, the Panthers, facing elimination, turned to a 20-year-old rookie with all of four NHL games under his belt to save their season.
Spencer Knight had a humbling initial welcome, allowing a goal on the first shot he faced, by Lightning rookie forward Ross Colton 53 seconds into the game. Then he allowed nothing else, recording 36 saves in his first playoff start to send the series back to Tampa for Game 6 on Wednesday at Amalie Arena.
“That’s a really good hockey team,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of the Panthers. “They weren’t going to just roll over and die there. We knew it was going to be a tough series from the beginning. We put ourselves in a good position to go home for Game 6 and try to win a series. … We’ll expect better effort from our group next game.”
Lightning center Brayden Point said the Panthers were more desperate.
“We’ve got to be better in Game 6,” said Point, who had just two shot attempts and no shots on goal. “We’ve got to bring that intensity, we’ve got to bring that desperation more.”
The Lightning matched a team playoff record with 22 shots in the first period. They had twice as many scoring opportunities in the first as the Panthers (18 to nine), but three straight penalties kept Tampa Bay defending its net instead of attacking.
Knight, 20, who played this season at Boston College before signing an entry-level contract March 31, seemed to gain confidence with every save. He faced a flurry of shots at the end of a Lightning power play in the first and turned the Lightning away at every turn from there.
“He hung in there,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I thought they defended well in front of him. We left a lot of plays out there. If we could have had a few of those plays back, we would.”
While the Lightning conceded that Knight played well, they thought they the outcome had more to do with their failings.
“After (the first period), I don’t think we generated many scoring chances, to be honest,” Stamkos said. “We’ll review the tape, and we know we have to be better. We’re going to have to grind a little harder in those tough areas to create some second or third chances. I didn’t think we had that many (Monday).”
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The Lightning were burned on a critical power-play goal early in the third period after a holding calling against defenseman Luke Schenn that followed a turnover by defenseman Mikhail Sergachev at the blue line with 59 seconds left in the second. Patric Hornqvist scored on a tip-in 35 seconds into the third to give Florida a 3-1 lead.
Forward Frank Vatrano’s empty-netter with 14.6 seconds left provided the final margin.
“If you’re going to win a playoff series, you can’t be on and off,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to be on our game for the entire game, and our second wasn’t our best, and we paid for it.”
The Lightning power play, which got star wing Nikita Kucherov back after he left Game 4 with a left leg injury, was 0-for-2. Tampa Bay didn’t have a power play after the first period.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Colton 2 (McDonagh, Coleman), 0:53. Penalties—Hedman, TB (Hooking), 2:53; McDonagh, TB (Roughing), 7:18; Huberdeau, FLA (Hooking), 7:26; Palat, TB (Interference), 10:36; Marchment, FLA (Boarding), 15:09.
Second Period—2, Florida, Weegar 1 (Bennett, Huberdeau), 6:19. 3, Florida, Marchment 2 (Weegar, Barkov), 16:55. Penalties—Schenn, TB (Holding), 19:01.
Third Period—4, Florida, Hornqvist 2 (Huberdeau, Barkov), 0:35 (pp). 5, Florida, Vatrano 1 (Hornqvist), 19:45 (en). Penalties—Maroon, TB (Cross Checking), 19:49; Maroon, TB (Misconduct), 19:49; Coleman, TB (Roughing), 19:49; Montour, FLA (Cross Checking), 19:49.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 22-9-6_37. Florida 15-11-12_38. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 2; Florida 1 of 5. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 3-1-0 (37 shots-34 saves). Florida, Knight 0-0-0 (37-36). A—11,551 (19,250). T—2:48. Referees—Francois St. Laurent, Kelly Sutherland. Linesmen—Bevan Mills, Jonny Murray.
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