For the second year in a row, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers face each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The in-state rivalry has become the talking point of the league, with tensions consistently high, soaring intensity, and goals galore. With Tuesday night’s win in Sunrise, The Bolts are off to a heavenly start with goals from Nikita Kucherov, Corey Perry, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, and Ross Colton.
Game 1 Nuts and Bolts:
No Point? No problem
As Brayden Point has been sidelined for the time being with a lower-body injury sustained in the thrilling game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Lightning were already disadvantaged by not having one of the most consistent and reliable post-season players on their roster. Having scored a phenomenal OT goal in game 6 to give the Lightning a shot at fighting to stay alive and having a key role as Jon Cooper’s pick for the PP 1st unit bumper spot, Point’s absence was worrisome for Bolts fans headed into the Battle of Florida. At puck drop on Tuesday evening, the question still lingered: in the absence of Point, who would step up for Tampa?
Kucherov leads the way, in depth scoring continues to shine
One of the more obvious talking points about game 1 is 2019 Hart Trophy Winner Nikita Kucherov. Kuch had himself a night in Sunrise, helping to tie the score after trailing by one by leaving defensemen Aaron Ekblad discombobulated as he makes a masterstroke of a move towards the net and then executes his signature perfect no-look pass to a wide-open Corey Perry, who taps it into the back of the net.
However, Kucherov still had unfinished business to attend to, as he capitalized on the Lightning PP with about four minutes left. Often being referred to as the “quarterback” or “cornerstone” of Tampa’s powerplay, Kucherov received the puck in the nearside of the offensive zone and took his time to look for a passing option, but instead ended up launching a wrister into the back of the net (with the help of a beautifully timed screen by Anthony Cirelli.)
In-depth scoring also showed up to play in Sunrise, as both goals from third-liner Ross Colton and fourth-liner Pierre-Édouard Bellemare showed that the Bolts can really work as a proper team and have every single player show up and deliver. Ross Colton’s goal was a thing of beauty, not just because of the speed of his wrist shot going right past Florida netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, but because of the entire execution of the play leading to the goal.
Once Alex Killorn serves Sergachev with a beautiful feed along the boards, and the defensemen claps it towards the net, game 7 hero “Big Nick Energy” Paul has the presence of mind to place his stick just right where the puck would’ve met Bobrovsky’s pads. This tip creates a beautiful rebound opportunity, which Nick Paul catches out of midair to send it to Colton, who sends the final dagger of the game into the back of the net.
Game 2: What should we expect for the Battle of the Sunshine State?
Intensity will significantly increase:
Despite both teams coming out of exhausting first-round matchups, I think all hockey fans expected the 2nd Sunshine State showdown to be just as violent and to have the same on the edge of your seat ferocity as last year. Rightfully so Game 1 of last season’s series, the Lightning and Panthers accumulated a combined seven roughing penalties. This past Tuesday, there was only one rough penalty in the entire game.
When asked about it, Captain Steven Stamkos said, “Our group kind of goes with the flow, If it’s going to be that type of game, Patty (Maroon) and the boys are going to step up, and it’s going to be that type of game. And if it’s going to be a game where discipline is going to be a huge factor, where special teams is going to be huge factor, then we need to win the special teams battle.”
So I would expect to see several fights and a lot more penalties coming up. Especially with the Panthers being at home, they know they need to come out swinging if they are to compete with this top-tier Lightning roster.
As a bonus, I think Game 7 hero Nick Paul and linemate Brandon Hagel, who was recently acquired at the trade deadline, have a lot more to offer in this series. So I would watch that third line to come up big for the Lightning, as they have done thus far.