SUNRISE — The Lightning ended their preseason Saturday with a 4-2 win over the Panthers, coming back from a one-goal deficit entering the third period to beat the Panthers in the third straight meeting between the teams.
Coach Jon Cooper said his team “tiptoed” into the game but got better as it went on. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy carried the Lightning early, and Pat Maroon scored two power-play goals in the third.
Most important, Cooper said the Lightning made it out of the game without suffering serious injury. Center Anthony Cirelli left the game in the second following a collision with Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau and didn’t return, but Cooper said he will be fine.
Here’s what we learned from the Lightning’s preseason finale:
Vasilevskiy is ready for the regular season
Vasilevskiy played just once in the Lightning’s first six preseason games, but it became clear early Saturday that he’s ready for the regular season. Vasilevskiy likes to see a lot of pucks, and credit the Panthers for obliging. Florida gave Vasilevskiy a game’s worth of work in the first period alone with 26 shot attempts, most of those opportunities coming in the slot and in front of the net. Vasilevskiy stopped all 18 shots on goal in the period.
“He sure had to be on in the first period,” Cooper said. “I’ll tell you that. He was magnificent. I like how they helped him out as the game went on, but yeah, he looks to be ready for Tuesday night (the season opener against the Penguins).”
Vasilevskiy ended the game with 45 saves.
The Panthers may have closed the gap
Though this was the third meeting in six days between the teams, it was the first one that included the lineups we expect to see in the regular season. Florida has the look of a team that will be better than last season’s. Its offense already was dangerous, but the way the Panthers fly around the offensive zone, battle for the puck and create chances is impressive. The Panthers were a team that could have advanced deep in the last postseason had they not drawn the Lightning in the first round.
“We were loose,” Cooper said of his team. “We didn’t protect the middle of the ice. We weren’t stomping on pucks. And a good team like them, they’ll take advantage of that. We got better as it went on, and that was nice.”
Second power-play unit is an intriguing work in progress
After scoring two power-play goals last season, Maroon scored two in the third period Saturday.
His first came after he cleaned up a rebound in front of the net when Corey Perry’s shot was denied. In the middle of traffic — and as Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar pushed Perry into the net — Maroon tucked the puck inside the near post.
“Perry’s doing what he does best, taking pucks to the net and creating havoc, and we all get rewarded for it,” Maroon said.
Maroon’s second goal came after Ondrej Palat won a puck off the near wall and fed Maroon streaking toward the net. Maroon then beat Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky with a backhanded shot over his glove side near the post.
Lightning defense needs to tighten up
Despite Florida dominating zone time for the first 30 minutes, the Lightning tied the score at 1 when Alex Killorn took a feed from Steven Stamkos and scored in front of the net. But the Lightning then committed one of the cardinal sins of hockey, allowing a goal on the next shift. And it was egregious. Panthers forward Sam Reinhart found himself open between the circles with the puck on his stick and scored 27 seconds after Killorn. That was the breakdown that hurt the Lightning, but they allowed far too many open looks throughout the night and were lucky that Vasilevskiy bailed them out.
“I like our group, but I think we could be a lot better,” Maroon said. “Guys in and out of the lineup, guys trying to figure out what lines they’re playing with, chemistry is not there or whatever it is, but I would like to just clean up some things in the D zone.”
Lightning will lean on Taylor Raddysh
Whether Raddysh will be the rookie forward selected for the opening-night lineup remains to be seen, but he was the chosen one Saturday, getting the nod over Boris Katchouk and Alex Barre-Boulet. Raddysh has shown that his game fits on the fourth line along with veterans Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Maroon. We’ve seen him on both special teams in the preseason. And Saturday he was paired with Ross Colton as the forwards on the second penalty kill unit and was on the ice when the Lightning were defending a 6-on-5 situation at the end of the game.
“He’s pretty diverse,” Cooper said. “He can kill, he can play in a power play, he’s got size (6 feet 3, 198 pounds), he’s got skill. He’s ready for the NHL. He’s just got to make sure that he’s playing with the grit and determination every single night.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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