BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
The Florida Panthers are four games into a six game Homestand and they’re 2-1-1 as they’ve faced the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings.
The opening game of each series hasn’t been kind to the Cats and they’ve lost to the Predators and Red Wings. They’ve earned five points thus far. In their two games versus the Red Wings, Florida was out scored 5-3 and it appeared as though the Panthers didn’t respect the Red Wings in the opener.
That would change in the second contest as Florida defeated Detroit 2-1.
The Panthers (7-1-2) know there is a lot more work to be done against their cross-state rival and the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Tampa Bay Lightning (9-1-1).
The Lightning currently sit atop of the Central Division with 19 points while the Panthers are in second place with 16.
The Panthers lead the all-time series 66-46-10-16. Florida leads the series at home 39-15-4-10. Tampa Bay has won the last two meetings 0-2-0 between the clubs. During the 2019-20 season, the Lightning won the series 3-1. Florida’s last home win occurred on October 4, 2019, as the Cats came away with a 4-3 triumph.
During Thursday’s pre-game skate, Panthers Coach Joel Quenneville told us “there is no room for error and we have to do things the right way. We’ll learn a lot more about our team against a top opponent.”
Would the Panthers avoid losing the first game of a two-game series?
When I attended the morning skate on Thursday, I saw the energy and intensity throughout the session for a team that was possessed to take on this challenge looking to take on a top tier opponent in an effort to gain respect.
It carried over into the game and they looked fantastic in the opener defeating the Lightning 5-2 and snapped Tampa’s six-game winning streak.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped all 16 shots he faced at even strength and improved his record to 5-0-1, the best record through his first six games in his career.
The Panthers played like a team that was possessed and led 4-1 through the second period.
For the night, Aaron Ekblad and Alex Wennberg each scored a goal and had an assist. Frank Vatrano, Carter Verhaeghe and Brett Connolly also scored.
Verhaeghe’s goal turned out to be the game winner. He won a Stanley Cup Championship with the Lightning last season before moving down I-75 South to join the Panthers in 2021. He has seven goals this season.
Tampa Bay’s 21 total shots on goal are the least allowed by the Panthers in a game this season.
Florida registered a season high 44 hits and 13 penalty minutes.
When the game was over, Coach Joel Quenneville was gleaming.
“I thought it was an excellent game across the board,” he said. “Obviously, we’re excited about playing and meeting a big challenge today. The next game is going to be a bigger challenge, but at the same time, the excitement and the purpose behind which we played today was exactly how it had to be in order to be successful.”
“I thought we did what we had to do today, and I really liked the way we had pace to the game, and had possession of the puck a lot more.”
Bobrovsky added, “it’s definitely a big win for us tonight. We know Tampa Bay is a really good team, a balanced team. We crushed their attacks right in the beginning of the development. It’s definitely a big win for us to keep building the atmosphere in the locker room.”
Verhaeghe said this game had a special meaning for him.
“It was fun playing against the old squad,” he said. “The whole team was buzzing tonight. We were the better team at 5-on-5 tonight, and it showed. It’s always good to know where we stand but we can’t get complacent.”
After the victory, the coach was so pleased that he cancelled practice on Friday and gave his squad a day off to rest.
Was their any complacency on Saturday Night and how would the Panthers respond?
The Panthers outshot the Lightning 11-4 in the opening period, but the game was scoreless at the end of the first frame. The Panthers couldn’t capitalize on a four minute man advantage in this period.
But the Lightning stuck for four goals in the second period and had the Panthers reeling in their zone for much of the frame. Tampa Bay outshot Florida 17-13 as Bobrovsky did everything he could to stop what was coming in his direction.
But the relentless, swarming play of the Lightning paid off as they led 4-0 after two periods.
The Panthers power play didn’t do them any favors through the first two periods, going 0-4. Florida would not get another power play the rest of the evening.
Tampa outscored Florida 2-1 in the third period to take a 6-1 decision.
The Panthers out shot Tampa Bay 34-28 and also out hit the Lightning 36-25.
But in the end, all that mattered was what was on the scoreboard.
The Panthers knew it and judging by what they had to say after the contest, they were ready to hit the road and look for redemption against these same Lightning Monday Night at 7 PM.
Coach Quenneville said, “They (Tampa Bay) were a hungrier team. I don’t think they’ve had one of those games where they get outplayed, and they know how to win. They came back with a different appetite tonight, we didn’t get the lead early doing the right things, and it got a way from us when we got behind chasing it.”
Forward Aleksander Barkov added, “Obviously it didn’t go our way today. Tampa is a really good team, but we’ve got to play our own game in order to beat them, and we didn’t do that today.”
Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said, “We just didn’t come to play tonight. We were in the game for a bit but the second period they just kept taking it to us. We weren’t ready for it, plain and simple. We’ll look for a bounce back Monday.”
In the Thursday Night win, Jonathan Huberdeau posted his 300th assist. He is the first Panther in franchise history to reach the 300 assist mark.
The second place Panthers take an 8-2-2 record into Monday Night while the Central Division leading Lightning are 10-2-1.
These two teams will see each other six more times and judging what I saw this weekend with the numerous roughing and fighting penalties called, there will be no shortage of bad blood between these two squads.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.