SUNRISE — Of course the Lightning miss Brayden Point. But they’ve been here before, forced to replace an injured star talent.
They won the Stanley Cup without captain Steven Stamkos for all but 2:47 of the 2020 playoffs. They played the regular season last year without Nikita Kucherov before winning their second straight title.
And without Point, hurt in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs on Saturday, the Lightning persevered in their second-round opener Tuesday night, beating the Presidents’ Trophy- winning Panthers 4-1 at FLA Live Arena.
Kucherov pushed the pace for the Lightning in Point’s absence, putting them on his stick with a highlight-reel setup on the tying power-play goal in the second period, then adding a dynamic goal with the man advantage to make it 3-1 in the third.
Corey Perry stepped in for Point on the first power-play unit and scored on Kucherov’s nifty setup, the first of three power-play goals on the night.
And everyone pitched in defensively, holding a team that averaged a league-high 4.1 goals per game in the regular season to one score.
“Let’s be honest, you’re going to miss a guy like Brayden Point,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But if you’re going to have the success we’ve had over the years … wherever it is, this group has figured out a way to fill in the gaps and they did that (Tuesday). And whether (Point is) available or not, we’ve got to continue to do that.”
The Lightning are starting to look like the playoff team of the past two postseasons, a resilient group that wouldn’t be denied and found ways to win.
They were trailing 1-0 in the final five minutes of the second period when Kucherov corralled a long rebound in his end and headed up the ice. He juked Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad on the rush, faked toward the middle, then took the puck to his left, leaving Ekblad flailing at air. He then fed Perry along the back post for what might have been the easiest open-net goal of Perry’s career.
That goal changed the game, Cooper said.
“It gives us a little boost going in after the second all tied up here, and all of a sudden it’s a 20-minute game, and we won the period,” Cooper said.
The Lightning were on the power play because of Kucherov, who picked up speed skating through the neutral zone and made a move on Florida defenseman MacKenzie Weegar that left him flat-footed and hooking Kucherov in desperation.
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After forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s goal gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead 3:35 into the third period, Kucherov provided a two-goal cushion on a power play. He set up along the half wall, then skated to the right dot and unloaded a quick wrister, his shot going between Weegar’s legs and inside the near post with Anthony Cirelli setting a screen in front of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Forward Ross Colton scored the Lightning’s third power-play goal with 2:16 left in the game.
“We really didn’t change anything,” Kucherov said of the team’s success on the power play. “Just take our time, and the execution is the key.”
Coming off their 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, the Lightning did what they had to do to win Game 1 against the Panthers, particularly defensively. They had 16 blocked shots while taking away looks and space from the Panthers in their zone. Against a Florida team that looks to create offense off turnovers, the Lightning protected the puck. In the third period, Florida had just six shots on goal in 5-on-5 play.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy saved 33 of 34 shots, including the final 26 shots he faced, none more important than his stop of forward Claude Giroux on a rush inside the final six minutes while protecting a one-goal lead. Dating to overtime of the Lightning’s Game 6 win against Toronto, Vasilevskiy has stopped 72 of 74 shots.
“It starts in our own zone, and that’s how we’re going to be effective,” Perry said. “That’s where we’ll have a chance to win. That third period, guys blocked shots, we played north, we got the puck out, we didn’t turn the puck over, and then we clogged the middle of the ice.
“And it’s a system that’s worked, and we continue to put that plan in place, and we just have to go and execute it.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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