TAMPA — The Lightning are unquestionably a team in transition after winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, but few could anticipate Tampa Bay referring to itself as a “work in progress” so early in the season.
Suddenly losing star forward Nikita Kucherov will do that. And it has left the Lightning already looking for answers one week into this young season.
The Lightning’s 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night was their first game without Kucherov — placed on long-term injured reserve with a lower body injury — and his absence was clear in an 0-for-6 showing on the power play.
They’ve won without Kucherov before. He missed all of last season’s 56-game regular season as he recovered from hip surgery. But the Lightning had a training camp to develop their blueprint for life without Kucherov.
“We’ve got to work some things out,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re not panicking over it, but it’s going to just take some time to adjust. ... There’s going to be some guys moving around a little bit and we’ll work on that. ... When you go 0-for on the power play with that many chances, it’s frustrating.”
Kucherov is one of the league’s top playmakers on the half wall. His vision allows him to make precise passes on the power play that set up his teammates for open shots and give the Lightning one of the most dangerous power-play units in the league.
“Our power play runs through him,” said Brayden Point, who scored the Lightning’s only goal of the night in even-strength play. “We didn’t get a ton of time to work on the PP without him so it’s gonna be a work in progress. There’s going to be things that we’re going to have to iron out. But tonight wasn’t good. A lot of chances but no looks. That’s the best way I’d describe it.”
The Lightning’s power-play woes included a failed 5-on-3 for 1:34 in the first period. The Lightning had three shots on goal in that sequence, but couldn’t take advantage.
Maybe they tried to compensate for Kucherov’s loss by passing too much, or waiting for the perfect shot. Instead, they’ll likely have to reinvent their power-play approach.
“I think just simplifying is going to be the key to our power play,” Point said. “It might not be Tic-Tac-Toe goals that we’re scoring. I think just the more we can get the puck to the net with some traffic and maybe just bang in some greasy ones, that might be the way it’s going to have to be.”
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Point tied the score at 1 with a slap shot from above the right circle 2:36 into the third period, a shot that went through three Panthers skaters and past goaltender Spencer Knight top shelf for his first goal of the season.
Point’s goal came right after Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy made a tremendous blocker save on Panthers forward Kevin Connauton as he approached the near post.
The Panthers responded quickly with Aleksander Barkov’s go-ahead tally 64 seconds later, cleaning up a loose puck in the paint that former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe tapped to Barkov inside the far post for a backdoor goal.
Florida rookie Anton Lundell added an insurance goal, his first NHL score, on a give-and-go with Sam Reinhart, fading away into the right dot and rifling a wrister past Vasilevskiy with 6:41 left in the third.
Anthony Duclair’s empty-netter with 2:06 left provided the final margin and sent the sellout crowd of 19,092 heading to the exits as Florida fans filled Amalie Arena with “Let’s Go, Panthers” chants.
After a pair of comeback overtime victories on the road in Detroit and Washington, the Lightning lost their second straight home game to open the season. They’ve been outscored 10-3 in their two games at Amalie Arena.
“We just didn’t score,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And aside from the Detroit game, that’s been a bit of a theme for us. We’ve just got to grind our way into some goals. Listen, we had some really good chances. We had a couple breakaways, we had some chances where things could’ve happened for us. They didn’t tonight. We did a lot of good things. We had a lot of zone time, we’re just going to push forward here.
“This is the stuff that happens. We have a lot of season left.”
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