TAMPA — The Lightning arguably know the Panthers better than any other team in the league, having played them 18 times including the preseason during the past calendar year. So they weren’t surprised to see their cross-state rivals race to the top of the Atlantic Division standings with a strong start to the season.
“The Panthers are rolling,” center Brayden Point said. “A super-skilled group. They’re superfast. They make a lot of plays. So they’re going to be a big test.”
The Panthers matched the best 11-game start to a season in NHL history by going 10-0-1. But they bring a three-game losing streak into Saturday night’s game against the Lightning at Amalie Arena.
“When you string so many wins in a row together, you are going to lose some games,” coach Jon Cooper said Friday. “It’s just inevitable. Pucks are not going to go in sometimes like … they have in the past.
“But (the Panthers) are still as dynamic as ever. But I think you throw it all out the window when Florida and Tampa Bay play each other just because of our history together.”
Florida entered Friday with a five-point lead in the division despite its recent skid and a coaching change. Joel Quenneville resigned two weeks ago in the wake of a report on an independent investigation into allegations that the Blackhawks mishandled a player’s sexual assault accusations against an assistant coach in 2010 while Quenneville was their coach.
The Lightning and Panthers have become legitimate rivals during the past year as Florida has closed the competitive gap. Last season’s first-round playoff series between the teams featured skill and toughness, and the teams play each other so often that the fisticuffs we’ve seen should continue.
The Panthers are a fast team that knows how to utilize its speed. They entered Friday leading the league with 54 goals but are willing to take risks to create takeaways, a statistic in which they ranked second.
“There’s a lot of structure, and they know where they want pucks,” Cooper said. “They’re just such a skilled group. Everybody on the team has skill, and they are not afraid to go make the play even if it’s going to potentially end up as a chance to get away.
“They’re a team that will trade you chance for chance and feel that they’re skilled enough that more of their chances will go in. That’s basically what’s happened this year.”
Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev will return for Saturday’s game after serving a two-game suspension for his illegal hit to the head of Toronto’s Mitch Marner last week.
Sergachev practiced with the team during his suspension and said it gave him time to concentrate on improving the defensive part of his game.
“I think it was a good time for me to take a step back and look at it from another angle,” Sergachev said. “I worked out every other day and skated hard, so I got back in ultimate shape. Worked on my stick, because I feel like I’m getting beat sometimes and losing battles and (also) working on battles. (I was) working on shots, but that’s been fine so far this season. It’s just, in the defensive end, I should be better.”
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Quote of the day
“A hell of a guy, a tireless worker. When we took the turn as an organization was that playoff year when we acquired him. And he was a major part of us growing as an organization. I can’t say enough good things about that guy. He mentored the young guys, impeccable work ethic, always wanted to learn. Just a class guy.”
— Lightning coach Jon Cooper on defenseman Braydon Coburn, who announced his retirement on Friday. Coburn, a 16-year NHL veteran, played parts of six seasons with the Lightning and was a member of the team’s 2020 Stanley Cup-winning team.
Odds and ends
Cooper said defenseman Erik Cernak is still considered week-to-week with an upper-body injury, but Zach Bogosian could return against Florida, which would help fill the right-side defenseman void Cernak’s absence creates. Bogosian skated in Cernak’s spot at Friday’s practice, paired with Ryan McDonagh. Bogosian hasn’t played since the regular season opener on Oct. 12. … Rookie forward Boris Katchouk, who has missed the past four games with an upper-body injury, also could return Saturday.
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