The Lightning were outmanned Thursday night against the Panthers, but coach Jon Cooper made it clear that wasn’t the reason they suffered their worst loss of the season.
With both their top goaltenders and a pair of defensemen sidelined in the COVID-19 protocol, the Lightning were far from full strength, and the Panthers — who had to shut down for the holiday break early — returned 10 players from the protocol just the previous night.
But Cooper, who was coaching his first game back after spending the past nine days in the protocol, said the Lightning’s embarrassing 9-3 loss in Sunrise wasn’t due to a roster in constant flux.
“We gave up too many chances to a really good team that wanted to beat us,” Cooper said, ”and a team that we’ve handled and beaten in the playoffs, and they haven’t forgotten, and after (Thursday), I won’t forget this.
“But they deserved what they had, and we probably helped them along in the process. But don’t look at our lineup and say that’s a victim of circumstances. We put ourselves in that position.”
The nine goals are the most the Lightning have given up in Cooper’s tenure as head coach (from March 2013) and the most they’ve yielded since March 7, 2009, a 9-3 loss to the Hurricanes.
The Lightning defense didn’t help goaltender Max Lagace, who made his second start filling in for Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott after being recalled from AHL Syracuse. Lagace allowed six goals on 27 shots before he was replaced to open the third period by Hugo Alnefelt, another Syracuse callup, making his NHL debut. Alnefelt allowed three goals on 10 shots in the third.
With defensemen Cal Foote and Mikhail Sergachev in the protocol — Foote entered Thursday — defenseman Darren Raddysh made his NHL debut and Sean Day played his second NHL game after debuting against Montreal on Tuesday. The Lightning were also without forwards Anthony Cirelli and Taylor Raddysh, who were in the protocol. Raddysh also entered Thursday.
“We’ve had to have guys step up into new roles all year,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “You’re going to have injuries, you’re going to have guys out, but that’s no excuse for our group. We’ve got good leadership, and we’ve got to get guys ready to play, and (Thursday) is not a good example of the way we want to play. We took it on the chin. That’s for sure.”
The Lightning (21-7-4) typically protect the front of their net, but over the past three games, they’ve shown concerning lapses there, and the Panthers capitalized.
“We talked about it going into (Thursday), taking care of the middle of the ice,” McDonagh said. “(The Panthers) find a way to get a lot of pucks there and drive a lot of offense. In the end, you’ve got to take care of the good ice, and that’s right in front of the net. That certainly didn’t help out our goalies nearly enough (Thursday), and we paid the price.”
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The Lightning trailed 3-0 less than 15 minutes into the game and fell behind 4-1 3:02 into the second period when Florida defenseman Radko Gudas’ shot on net from the point hit off the post and the puck went right to forward Eetu Luostarinen, who wristed a shot from the slot into the back of the net.
Three of the Panthers’ first four goals came on rebounds after the puck struck iron and found Florida sticks in front of the net.
Steven Stamkos’ Lightning-high 15th goal of the season cut the Panthers’ lead to 4-2 6:19 into the second, but the Panthers (20-7-4) scored twice in the final three minutes of the period to make it 6-2.
“I think they scored some goals at key moments,” Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph said. “We were trying to get back into the game. We didn’t hate the way we played, but those goals definitely hurt, and we’re definitely going to have to clean this up (tonight against the Rangers).”
“(The Rangers) were a hard-luck third period away from beating (the Panthers on Wednesday), and we weren’t close to beating these guys (Thursday),” Cooper said. “We’ve got to be better. Were there some good signs from this group? Of course there were. We gave up nine, so we’re better than that.”
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