What will it take to beat the Lightning in the postseason? Or, for that matter, to get a puck behind Andrei Vasilevskiy?
If you’re the Florida Panthers, nothing short of an act of God would seem to suffice.
With its back to the wall and the greatest season in franchise history on the line, Florida pushed back hard in Game 4 of the second-round series Monday at Amalie Arena.
And pushed. And pushed some more.
The Panthers pressured the Lightning from start to finish, outhitting them 41-29, launching 82 shots at Vasilevskiy and holding a 49-25 advantage in shots on goal.
They got traffic to the net, shot from every angle, had rebound opportunities, even got their defensemen involved in the offense for the first time in the series.
They were absolutely flying in the second of back-to-back games.
And they were beaten by the slowest guy on the ice.
Well, maybe second slowest, after Florida inserted 42-year-old Joe Thornton into its lineup.
When Pat Maroon reached over Sergei Bobrovsky and knocked a puck to the ice that went off the goaltender’s blocker and into the net just over six minutes into the third period, the end was near for the Panthers.
Ondrej Palat ended any remaining hopes with an empty-net goal with 23 seconds remaining.
The Lightning shut out the team that led the NHL in both points and scoring during the regular season 2-0 to complete a four-game sweep and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the third straight season. It will be their sixth conference final appearance in the past eight seasons, something that hasn’t been done since the Avalanche teams of the late 1990s-early 2000s.
For most of the series, the Lightning clogged the middle of the ice and sacrificed their bodies to block shots. They took care of their end and let their offense flow from there. But the Panthers had them on their heels for much of Monday’s game, and the Bolts struggled to match their desperation.
If ever there was a chance for Florida to get back into the series, this was it. If you couldn’t beat the Lightning on this night, when they were playing on tired legs, constantly under siege and without star center Brayden Point for a fourth straight game, when can you beat them?
The Panthers have the entire offseason to think about it.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 4:
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Vasilevskiy was the difference in the game, stopping all 49 shots he faced to shut out an opponent in a series-clinching game for the sixth time in the past seven series.
Calm and cool, perfectly positioned, good with the glove and laser-focused, Vasilevskiy gave his teammates confidence and a chance to regroup in the face of Florida’s constant pressure.
He was never more important than in the first period, as the Panthers forced the Lightning to defend more than at any point in the series, outshooting them 18-3.
Over the course of the series, Vasilevskiy stopped 151 of 154 shots on goal, holding the highest-scoring team in more than 25 years to three goals over four games.
He’s also the reason there won’t be a Game 5.
What could have been a demoralizing goal against Florida midway through the second period turned out to be a mere footnote on the scoresheet.
The Panthers were outshooting the Lightning by a margin of more than 4:1 and Carter Verhaeghe had just rimmed a shot off all three posts when Alex Killorn seemed to put the Lightning ahead 1-0 on a redirection of a Mikhail Sergachev shot from the center point.
But Florida challenged the play for a missed game stoppage, and replays showed the puck go into the netting after Palat rimmed it out from below the goal line prior to the goal, which was disallowed after an 8-1/2 minute review.
Grade: C, for correct call
No goal, Part 2
Two minutes after Killorn’s goal was disallowed, Nikita Kucherov had the same thing happen to him.
Kucherov appeared to score from the left circle after Anthony Cirelli won a faceoff in the offensive zone and played the puck back to Kucherov, who snapped a shot over Bobrovsky’s glove.
But the Panthers challenged the play, and replays showed that Cirelli played the puck back to Kucherov with a hand pass.
Grade: S, for seriously? Again?
Tough to beat
The Lightning’s sixth straight playoff win going back to Game 6 of the first round clinched a 10th straight series victory dating back to the opening round of the 2020 postseason against Columbus.
Still, as captain Steven Stamkos pointed out, they have a way to go to catch up to Maroon, who has won 14 straight series going back to the 2019 postseason with St. Louis.
What the fourth-line wing lacks in speed and skating ability, he makes up for in toughness and leadership, and he showed great patience in scoring the winner, waiting until the puck went below the crossbar to bat it with his stick.
Of course, the goal doesn’t happen if defenseman Zach Bogosian doesn’t make a poised play under pressure at the blue line to keep a rolling puck in the zone before putting it on goal.
Thanks to Vasilevskiy, it was the only goal the Lightning would need.
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