SUNRISE — It’s after nights like these, when nothing seems to go the Lightning’s way, when this team can lean on its experience.
Monday’s 7-1 loss to the Panthers wasn’t the first time they were embarrassed at FLA Live Arena. But all in all, they have gotten the best of the Panthers. They have been on top of the mountain that their cross-state rivals are still trying to climb.
Resuming play after eight days for the all-star break, the Lightning (32-16-1, 65 points) could point to rust as the reason they suffered their most lopsided loss of the season. Inside a visitors’ locker room that cleared out quickly, they were grateful that they’ll play again Tuesday back home in Tampa (against the Sharks), so there won’t be much time to let this one sit.
“It wasn’t even the score,” team captain Steven Stamkos said. “It was just the lack of execution on our part. And they got some skilled players up front that are gonna make you pay, obviously. ... We played three really good games going into the break and coming out of the break, that just looked like one team was hungry and one team showed up to play a game and it’s not acceptable.”
For a Lightning team what won eight of 10 going into the break, Monday’s game snowballed quickly on them. After Nikita Kucherov’s goal 3:02 into the second period made it a one-goal game, the Panthers (25-22-6, 56 points) scored five times without a Lightning answer.
Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk, who won All-Star Game MVP honors in this building on Saturday, logged a five-point night with two goals and three assists; and the Lightning had no answer for a Panthers forward line of Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett and Tkachuk that combined for five Florida goals.
The Panthers outshot the Lightning 49-33, including 23 shots in a second period that saw Florida pull away, taking a 4-1 lead into the second intermission. Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 32 of 33 shots.
“I don’t want to say we’re still on vacation, but I thought their will to win was a little bit stronger than ours was tonight,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
“The first period, understandable. One practice isn’t going to emulate a game after you’ve had eight days off or whatever, but they seemed to be OK and we weren’t. I just thought it was too easy a night for them in our own zone.
“I’ll be honest, my concern is not about tonight,” Cooper added. “My concern is about (Tuesday). So let’s see how we respond because this one’s over. Things like this don’t happen very often to us, but I’d be really interested to see how we come out (Tuesday).”
It was an odd day for the Lightning from the start, beginning with Anthony Cirelli’s mysterious disappearance the first 14 minutes of the game with an undisclosed physical issue. When Cirelli returned, Vladislav Namestnikov missed the rest of the period with an injury, so the Lightning played most of the first 20 minutes one forward short.
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Tkachuk intercepted Erik Cernak’s errant pass, leading to the Panthers’ first goal. He then brought two Lightning skaters to him behind the net, leaving Bennett wide-open in front of the paint to give Florida a 2-0 lead. Then, with his team still up 2-1, Tkachuk batted a puck out of the air into the back of the net, capitalizing on a rebound off a Verhaeghe shot that hit off Zach Bogosian’s right glove, crippling him and leaving Tkachuk open by the near post.
“To be quite honest, that’s a big game against our rival, but we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re not necessarily fighting against them to get into the playoffs,” Tkachuk said.
“But eventually I think that most teams look at it that all roads lead through Tampa to ultimately win it all. So it feels good that we can beat them for the first time this year. It’s my first time beating them.”
A Lightning team that’s become better at protecting the front of its own net not only allowed too many open looks in front but allowed the Panthers to set up screens that made life miserable for Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose line of sight was constantly being taken away by traffic in front of him.
Players tried to turn the page quickly, looking toward Tuesday’s game against San Jose at Amalie Arena.
“We have a game in 24 hours,” Bogosian said. “So that’s the beauty of this league but certainly not acceptable tonight. We have a veteran group. We’re gonna address what we need to address and move on from there and get ready for, you know, a team that’s ... coming off a break, too.
“So we are going back home and we’ve just got to make sure we’re playing our style of hockey.”
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