TAMPA — Those Panthers were definitely pesky. They pushed the Lightning, frustrating them at times with their physicality. And they have closed the gap in the battle for Sunshine State bragging rights.
But the Lightning finally showed the determination of a battle-tested, defending Stanley Cup champion in Wednesday night’s Game 6 of their first-round playoff series.
They knew they couldn’t give the Panthers any more life. They couldn’t allow the series to get back to Sunrise for a Game 7. So the Lightning played one of their most disciplined and determined games in weeks — definitely of the playoffs — in a 4-0 series-clinching victory at Amalie Arena.
“You don’t want to risk a Game 7 because that’s a hell of a team over there,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But the boys played like champions (Wednesday). … It was 60 minutes of just sheer will and compete. And to win in this league, that’s what you need.”
The Lightning await the winner of the other Central Division series, between the Hurricanes and Predators. Carolina leads 3-2 going into tonight’s Game 6 in Nashville.
In front of a limited-capacity crowd of 10,092, Wednesday’s win was the first time the Lightning closed out a playoff series at home in more than three years, since a Game 5 win over Boston in the second round of the 2018 playoffs.
“We had a good feeling about (Wednesday),” captain Steven Stamkos said. You’ve got to back it up sometimes. (Wednesday) was one of those nights where we talked about it, went into the game, and then we backed it up.”
Tampa Bay went into the game still searching for a complete-game effort in the playoffs.
“It was our best effort by far in the playoffs in the biggest game that we played so far,” said Stamkos, who scored a power-play goal in the second period to put the Lightning up 2-0 and also had an assist. “That’s what experienced teams do in those situations … they step up when it’s time to step up.”
They were backed by a remarkable effort from goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves in his second career postseason shutout. In the second period, he handled two Florida power plays and 17 scoring chances.
With the Lightning holding a 1-0 lead with a little more than seven minutes left in the second period, Panthers forward Sam Bennett tried to put Lightning defenseman David Savard into a headlock, knocking his helmet off in the process.
With Bennett in the box for roughing, the Lightning power play got the team’s biggest goal of the series from a familiar place.
Stamkos took a pass from defenseman Victor Hedman at the left circle and launched the type of one-timer that Panthers rookie goaltender Spencer Knight, in his second postseason start, definitely hadn’t seen.
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Almost in relief, Stamkos pumped his fist in celebration.
The Lightning power play was 8-for-23 in the series.
Center Brayden Point, who didn’t have a shot on goal in the Lightning’s Game 5 loss, scored on an impressive move with 5:24 remaining in the game. Point sped down the ice, took a feed from forward Nikita Kucherov, juked Florida defenseman MacKenzie Weegar and skated across the crease. He waited out Knight until the goalie was spread on the ground before tucking it inside the near post to make it 3-0.
Alex Killorn provided the final goal, an empty-netter.
The return of third-line forward Barclay Goodrow, out since the second-to-last game of the regular season, added the right amount of physicality to the Lightning lineup. Ask Florida forward Owen Tippett, who was sent skates up into the Panthers bench by Goodrow in the first period.
After leading the NHL in minor penalties this postseason, the Lightning went to the box just twice.
Florida outshot Tampa Bay 29-24.
“We didn’t have a ton of shots, but you know, we stuck (with) it,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “I thought we battled very hard; we won a lot of puck battles. As individuals, too, we were determined to just win and compete. And everyone, all four lines, to the (defense) to ‘Vasy,’ we all competed hard.”
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Maroon 1 (Sergachev, Johnson), 6:16. Penalties—Montour, FLA (Hooking), 18:55.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 3 (Kucherov, Hedman), 13:27 (pp). Penalties—McDonagh, TB (High Sticking), 1:53; Bennett, FLA (Roughing), 12:53; Sergachev, TB (Cross Checking), 15:05.
Third Period—3, Tampa Bay, Point 4 (Cernak, Kucherov), 14:36. 4, Tampa Bay, Killorn 4 (Cernak, Stamkos), 18:18 (en). Penalties—Vatrano, FLA (Slashing), 19:35.
Shots on Goal—Florida 8-11-10_29. Tampa Bay 8-7-9_24. Power-play opportunities—Florida 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 3. Goalies—Florida, Knight 1-1-0 (23 shots-20 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 4-2-0 (29-29). A—10,092 (19,092). T—2:25. Referees—Francis Charron, Jon Mclsaac. Linesmen—Shandor Alphonso, Matt MacPherson.
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