TAMPA — No number on the stat sheet quantifies killing an opponent’s confidence, but the Lightning put a Panthers team with the best record in the regular season on the brink of playoff elimination Sunday by taking away its will to win.
A 5-1 victory in Game 3 of the second-round series means the Lightning can advance to the Eastern Conference final for a third straight season and the sixth time in eight seasons with one more win after taking a commanding 3-0 series lead.
The Lightning, who have won five straight games since they were on the brink of playoff elimination trailing the Maple Leafs 3-2 in the first round, have never lost a series when leading 3-0. They are 4-0 in such situations.
“We’ve won a couple games, and we’re still alive in the series, but the series isn’t over,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Until you start checking off that fourth win, there’s nothing to hang our hat on. We’re inching our way closer, but it is far from over.”
The Lightning have put themselves in great position by playing exemplary defense. In this series, they have held a team that led the NHL in the regular season with an average 4.1 goals per game to three total.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 34 saves Sunday, has been fantastic, as have the skaters playing defense in front of him.
It’s not pretty, but it’s Stanley Cup-winning hockey.
On Sunday, the Lightning took control of a one-goal game on the penalty kill, an area they have dominated over their run to back-to-back Cups, after the Panthers scored on a power play in the first period to tie it at 1. Florida finish 1-for-3 on the power play.
“You could hear the crowd get into it after a big kill,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We get into it just as much on the bench. So it’s a huge part of our team’s success.”
Less than two minutes back into even-strength play after a kill in the second period, the Lightning took a 3-1 lead on Stamkos’ goal with 9:37 left and never looked back.
This postseason, the Lightning have neutralized two of the league’s top power plays — Toronto was No. 1 and Florida No. 5 in the regular season — posting an 86.9-percent success rate that is a marked improvement over their 11th-ranked 80.6-percent regular-season mark.
The Lightning left the door open for a frustrated Panthers team in Game 3, allowing the power-play goal after forward Brandon Hagel was whistled for cross-checking. Sam Reinhart’s goal ended Florida’s 0-for-25 power-play drought in the playoffs and seemingly gave a sleeping giant confidence.
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Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s goal 2:54 into the second period took some air out of the Panthers, but Florida had another big opportunity when Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman went to the box for an interference penalty 6:37 into the period.
But the Lightning formed a wall in front of Vasilevskiy. In a power play that was contested almost entirely in the Lightning zone, Tampa Bay blocked four shots in the first minute while forward Nick Paul was playing without a stick. Vasilevskiy denied shots in close and out, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh flicked a puck away that was skipping toward an open net and blocked a shot right after the power play expired.
Paul’s stick broke shortly after the Lightning lost the defensive-zone faceoff to begin the power play. But with the Lightning bench on the other side of the red line, he couldn’t retrieve another, so he skated up top, defending without a stick, blocking one shot from the point.
McDonagh then blocked a shot, and Cernak blocked two from the perimeter before Florida got the puck in front of the net. Vasilevskiy stopped two shots in close by forward Patric Hornqvist and another slap shot from the slot by forward Aleksander Barkov.
Near the end of the power play, Reinhart’s one-timer from the slot was stopped but skipped over to the near post, where McDonagh swept the puck away from the front of the net.
“Huge swing there,” McDonagh said. “And I think our group on the (penalty kill) as a whole wants to thrive on being difference makers. We give up one early, but we don’t let it affect us and change our attitude, and in the end, it was (a) big kill there in the second.”
Soon, the Lightning were skating the other way. Hedman sprung forward Nikita Kucherov on a seam pass through the neutral zone. Kucherov scooted behind the rush and fed Stamkos for a one-timer at the left circle that beat Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for a 3-1 lead.
Stamkos said that penalty kill gave the Lightning a boost at a critical time.
“It feeds the energy on the bench,” Stamkos said. “It is really is inspiring. You watch those guys, they’re battling, they’re blocking shots, doing whatever it takes. Those aren’t easy minutes in a game. You see guys coming back to the bench just gassed, gasping for breath, and then they’ve got to go right back out there.
“But that’s just this group. Whatever guys are on the ice, we have full trust in.”
Kucherov and Stamkos had empty-netters in the third period to close out scoring.
“(The Lightning are) Stanley Cup champions and the best team in hockey probably over the last five years, so they know what they’re doing and they’re willing themselves,” Florida interim coach Andrew Burnette said. “They have more will and more desire than we do, and it shows, probably, if you watch the game shift after shift right now.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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