NHL Playoffs: Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Series Recap | 05/03/2024

Tkachuk and Ekman-Larsson celebrate with Barkov after he scored a goal. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Battle for Florida delivered on the rivalry intensity. The score didn’t always reflect how close each game was, as games four and five were blowout wins. Florida looked like a team out on a mission to complete what they fell just short of last season: winning the Stanley Cup. Tampa, meanwhile, was fighting for its life to try and advance to the second round after they were an early exit during the 2023 playoffs, having lost to Toronto in seven games. Florida’s roster currently holds the top four players in franchise history for most playoff goals, with Verhaeghe topping the list, followed by Tkachuk, Reinhart, and Barkov. The experience of the deep run last season has prepped the team to do the same this year, and with the majority of the team returning from last year, they’re ready to fight for a long postseason again. Viewers were treated to outstanding goaltending from both the Panthers and the Lightning, including the viral save from game 2 from Bobrovsky, where he stopped Dumba’s shot with his arm without looking at it. Florida’s star players showed up for the big moments, and the depth kept the pressure on the Lightning, along with fantastic defense and a PK unit that suffocated the Tampa power play.

Game 1:

In the weeks leading up to Game 1, there was concern among fans that the Panthers had peaked too early in the season after a tough stretch of about a month and a half where wins were sparse and the team chemistry looked completely off post trade deadline. The Cats quickly put that all to rest as they came out fiery and physical in Game 1. Bobrovsky got the start for the Panthers to open the series and would have every game start in the following games as well. With two elite goaltenders in the nets, goals were tough to come by, but Florida struck first from none other than Sam Reinhart, who tipped in a shot from Gustav Forsling. That goal put him at 58 goals for the season to tie for the second most in franchise history. The Panthers’ defense hounded Kucherov for this game and the entire series, keeping him from scoring a single goal over the course of the five games. Both teams set the physicality tone, with Florida having 54 hits and Tampa having 55. Toward the end of the first period, the Lightning tied the game off a goal from Hagel. The following twenty minutes of play left the score the same heading into the final period. A late carryover power play for the Panthers gave them the man advantage to start the third, and Carter Verhaeghe made the most of it, scoring 58 seconds into the period and giving Florida the 2-1 lead. Florida’s defense and Bobrovsky’s saves would keep Tampa frustrated until they pulled Vasilevskiy. Matthew Tkachuk got the empty net insurance goal to give the Cats a 3-1 lead. A late penalty on Florida and an empty net from the Lightning gave them a 6v4, and they scored with just eight seconds left in the period. Florida took Game 1 and looked comfortable doing it, playing with speed and physicality.

Game 2:

The story of Game 2 was goaltending. This game goes into the history books with one of the most impressive saves hockey fans have seen, and there was no escaping the clips of Bobrovsky’s goal-robbing save that were plastered all over social media. Vasilevskiy made plenty of good and great saves as well, but Bob made the one that everyone will remember. There was more tight forechecking and hits from both teams, Florida had 65 hits to Tampa’s 56. While the game did go into overtime, they only played about three minutes before Verhaeghe used patience and sent one right under the crossbar when Vasilevskiy got pulled out of position, leaving plenty of net to work with. The other big story to come out of this game was Sam Bennett. First, he scored in the opening period to break the ice, and then second, he took a friendly-fire slapshot from Brandon Montour that hit him in the hand, causing him to exit the game and the rest of the series. This led to adjusted lines for the rest of the series and the team needing to be able to play without one of their identity players. It was a match of momentum swings that resulted in regulation not being enough to break the tie. Lundell made a big impact moving up to center the Tkachuk line and made a fantastic pass through traffic to Verhaeghe, who scored the game-winner.

Game 3:

 The unexpected players were the big, impactful ones in Game 3. While goaltending was the star of Game 2, Game 3 was all about Florida’s fourth-line players, Cousins, Lorentz, and Okposo. These hard workers put in shift after shift of grinding and created great opportunities in the offensive zone that they got rewarded for with two goals, one from Montour and one from Lorentz – his first-ever playoff goal that stood as the game-winner. The depth of the team shined in this game as it was the first one with the fully adjusted lines to account for Sam Bennett’s absence. Florida scored first, with Matthew Tkachuk getting his first goal on Vasilevskiy, but Tampa then responded by getting two goals early in the second period. The Panthers made an offensive push and Reinhart would even things up before Montour gave the lead back to the Cats. Lorentz scored the game-winner midway through the third, and Tkachuk’s empty netter sealed the Game 3 win. This game also set an NHL playoff record for hits at 149, 86 for Tampa, and 63 for Florida. Through Game 3, the Panthers held Tampa to 2/12 on the power play, including allowing no power-play goals in Game 3. The penalty kill shut down any type of offensive momentum the Lightning tried to get from the mad advantage, and the Cats went into Game 4 looking for the sweep.

Game 4:

Game 4 quickly became a game that Panthers fans would like to forget. The team didn’t come out sharp and played their worst period of playoff hockey yet during this series. The penalty trouble finally came back to bite the team a bit as the Lightning got five power plays during this match and converted two of them into goals. Special teams continued to haunt the Cats throughout the game as they also gave up a short-handed goal and two goals during the two 4v4s. The only 5v5 goal came from Stamkos in the third period. Things didn’t look good for Florida going into the second period down 0-3, but this team doesn’t ever quit fighting. In the second period, they turned things around, getting goals from Verhaeghe, Reinhart, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and going into the third down just 3-4. Alas, the sweep wasn’t meant to be, and Tampa would walk away with the 3-6 win and force a Game 5. Overall, splitting the games in Tampa means your team is doing pretty well, and there should still be confidence in them going forward. Through Game 4 the Panthers have dominated the Lightning 5v5 and for the most part shut down the Tampa power play.

Game 5:

Back on home ice the Panthers would get a second chance to close out the series. As with most games in this series, the final game was a dramatic one, featuring two goalie interference calls, two empty net goals, 118 hits combined, and Barkov’s emotional celebrations. The Cats looked tight in the first period but kept things under control enough that the game was scoreless heading into the first intermission. Once again, Carter Verhaeghe came in big for the Panthers and scored just 45 seconds into the second period to break the ice, and Aleksander Barkov followed that up about 12 minutes later with a spectacular short-handed goal for the 2-0 lead. Although the Lightning got a response goal, Florida held onto the 2-1 lead going into the third period, where the scoring went off the rails in the final 9 minutes of the game. Both teams had great chances in the first half of the last period, but Barkov’s second goal of the night gave the Panthers a 3-1 lead and the biggest, most emotional celebration fans have seen from him. He got massive hugs from his linemates as well, and the crowd exploded with excitement and cheers for him. Evan Rodrigues one-timed an incredible pass from Kevin Stenlund for the 4-1 lead and put the game far out of reach with only five minutes left in the third period. The Cats weren’t done, though, as Verhaeghe scored an empty netter three seconds after Tampa pulled Vasilevskiy for the man advantage, and Mikkola got his own empty netter when the Lightning pulled their goalie for a second time. With a final score of 6-1, the Panthers defeated Tampa Bay for the first time ever in the playoffs and became the second team to advance into the next round.

My Takeaways:

I love it when this team proves me right. I pointed out in my series preview that a player fans should keep an eye on is Anton Lundell, and he came in to fill a massive hole left by Sam Bennett in this series. Lundell played a fantastic game with Verhaeghe and Tkachuk, and later on, when HC Paul Maurice put the Luostarinen-Lundell-Reinhart line back together. He made great plays up and down the ice and was a true impact player up on the second line. HC Paul Maurice said in his media availability on Wednesday that Lundell can do it all and that he was driving the game, and they felt confident matching his line against the Tampa top line. Lundell got to shine in this series, and at only 22 years old, he has a very bright future ahead of him in hockey. The Florida defense was as good as advertised during the regular season. They were able to keep Kucherov off the scoresheet on the goal-scoring side of things, he still got assists, but it’s impossible to keep a player like that off the scoresheet completely. The penalty kill held the Lightning to 4/20 on the power play, and if they can do that to the top power play in the league, I can’t imagine there’s a lot of hope for anyone else on the man advantage. Gustav Forsling was all over the ice, breaking up plays, getting into passing lanes, forcing turnovers, and driving the defense. Carter Verhaeghe thrives in the playoff environment and has a franchise-leading six goals, two game-winning goals, and five assists in series-clinching games, and 20 playoff goals. Since the 2022 postseason, Verhaeghe’s had 18 goals and 38 points in 36 games. The Panthers have great forward depth and have gotten contributions from every line in each game, even if they’re not always on the stat sheet. Bobrovsky’s goaltending has been stellar in the first round, allowing three goals or less in 4 out of the 5 games. The Panthers finally proved to themselves and the fans that they have what it takes to beat one of the consistently best teams in the league during the playoffs. Florida will play the winner of the Boston/Toronto series, with Game 1 set for Monday.

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