SUNRISE — When Ross Colton was called to take the ice with 49 seconds left in regulation in a tie game Thursday, the Lightning forward was just trying to play it safe and make sure he wasn’t on the wrong side of some last-minute heroics.
But Colton has a knack for big moments. He finds his way to the right places on the ice at the most opportune times. And with the seconds ticking away in Game 2 of the second-round series against the Panthers, he saw Nikita Kucherov weave behind the Florida net to retrieve the puck and instinctively drove to the net.
Kucherov took the puck off the end board and, as two Panthers defensemen converged on him, flung a backhand, no-look pass to Colton as Colton approached the net. Colton beat goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky nearside top shelf with 3.8 seconds left, sending the Lightning to a 2-1 victory at FLA Live Arena and a 2-0 lead in the series.
“I couldn’t believe (Kucherov) got it on my stick,” Colton said. “I think when we went in the corner (to celebrate), I just said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ like 10 times because I honestly couldn’t believe he put it on my stick.
“When you’re on the ice with ‘Kuch,’ you’ve got to be ready for anything. He’s got eyes in the back of his head because I don’t even know how he could tell I was there.”
Colton’s goal emptied the arena so quickly that at the final horn, the loudest sound in the building was “Let’s go, Lightning” cheers from the remaining Tampa Bay fans.
A physical, hard-nosed game that could have gone either way ended with the Lightning up in the series as it moves to Tampa for Game 3 on Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
“It’s just amazing what this group can continue to fight through, and obviously we knew (the Panthers) were going to push, and they pushed,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “They played a great game.
“We bent, but we didn’t break.”
For the third straight game, going back to Game 7 against the Maple Leafs in the first round, the Lightning executed a defensive-minded plan against one of the league’s top offensive teams. They focused on building a wall in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy by blocking shots and filling gaps to limit the Panthers’ looks at the net. They blocked 24 shots. Over the past three games, they have blocked 66.
They paid the price physically, wearing out the walkway from their bench to their locker room.
Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev missed the final eight minutes of the first period after taking a puck to the face. Defenseman Erik Cernak took a beating and kept skating, his white jersey collar bloodstained from taking a blocked shot to the chin. Stamkos went down the tunnel and returned three times. Forward Brandon Hagel needed to be helped down the tunnel by the team’s athletic trainers but also returned.
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Forward Corey Perry needed stitches before the game when a shot of his bounced back off the crossbar and hit him above his right eye. Perry then scored the Lightning’s first goal, on a power play 12:06 into the game, for a 1-0 lead in his second game filling in for injured Brayden Point in the bumper spot in front of the net.
Vasilevskiy stopped 35 of 36 shots and has allowed just one goal in each of his past three games after allowing an average of 3½ per game in his first six games of the postseason.
The Lightning killed off four Panthers power plays, including one with 3:23 left in regulation. Florida is 0-for-25 on the power play in the postseason.
“It’s contagious,” Stamkos said. “You see guys stepping up, whether it’s an amazing penalty kill at the end, blocking shots, taking a hit to make a play. Guys are willing to do that, and it’s a great treat to have as a team.”
Colton, who scored the Lightning’s Stanley Cup-clinching goal last season in Game 5 of the final against the Canadiens, leads the Lightning with five goals this postseason. He has scored in each of the first two games of this series. He scored 22 goals in his first full NHL regular season this year.
“He’s got that ‘it’ factor that he just goes to the right areas,” Stamkos said. “He’s got an unbelievable shot release. He uses his body so he can get in scoring positions.
“That’s the beauty of the playoffs, right? You never know who’s going to step up and be a hero.”
The win reminded coach Jon Cooper of some of the most epic buzzer-beating victories the Lightning have had in the past few years: Tyler Johnson’s last-second goal in the 2015 playoffs that gave Tampa Bay a 3-0 second-round series lead against the Canadiens. Kucherov’s goal in the 2020 playoff bubble with 7.8 seconds left in regulation against the Islanders that put the Lightning up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final.
“I bet ‘Kuch’ has probably been on the ice for all three of those,” Cooper said accurately, counting Thursday’s day. “He’s a special, special player.”
Cooper was asked whether the commitment his team shows in finding ways to win in the postseason ever surprises him.
“No, I’m not surprised,” Cooper said. “I’m just surprised they waited until 3.8 seconds left to do it (Thursday).”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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