BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
The Florida Panthers lived up to their name, the Cardiac Cats on Thursday Night in a must win situation vs the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After the morning skate, Panthers Coach Joel Quenneville told us “We would like to play ahead because chasing them isn’t easy.”
From the outset of the hockey game, the Panthers did just that as they took a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period.
Everything was going well for the Cats and Quenneville’s decision to start Chris Driedger over Sergei Bobrovsky appeared to be a good move.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning struck in the second period erupting for five goals.
There were five different goal scorers and three goals came on the power play.
Driedger was unable to make that big save and by the end of the second period the Panthers trailed 5-3.
Quenneville made a bold move and inserted Bobrovsky in the third period and the decision turned out to be brilliant.
He stopped all nine shots that he faced leading Florida to a 6-5 win in overtime.
Driedger was probably the most relieved individual on the planet as he got a no decision.
Bobrovsky has had success against the Lightning as he defeated them in the 2018-2019 playoffs as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He compiled 37 wins during the season and his performance against Tampa and that series win vs the Lightning was the first in Blue Jackets Franchise History.
His performance against Columbus earned him a huge payday. On July 1, 2019, Bobrovsky signed a seven-year, $70 million contract.
As I was watching this game on National Television, it was interesting to hear the commentary of Kenny Albert and former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher questioning Quenneville’s decision to start Driedger since he doesn’t figure to be in the club’s long term plans as he becomes an un restricted free agent. Boucher wondered whether or not that the team had enough confidence in Bobrovsky.
Being on the inside as I am, Quenneville was going with the guy that performed well on Tuesday Night and gave up two bad luck goals.
Sometimes these moves work. Sometimes they don’t.
But the Panthers refused to panic in the third period as Patric Hornqvist and Gustav Forsling scored the goals to tie the game 5-5.
Former NHL Stanley Cup Winning Coach and NBC Studio Analyst Mike Babcock described this as a “Tale of different games. It’s a festival of hockey. If you’re a fan of hockey then you’re loving it in Florida.”
Babcock nailed it with those comments.
The Panthers led 2-0 after the first period.
Tampa is ahead 5-3 at the end of the second.
We’re tied 5-5 at the end of the third heading into overtime. History was working against Florida in overtime as the Panthers hadn’t won an OT game since 1996.
How many of the players on this team were even born when they did?
Back to the national broadcast for a moment.
Babcock predicted Aleksander Barkov would win it for Florida.
Kathryn Tappen went with Jonathan Huberdeau while former Chicago Blackhawk Patrick Sharp thought Ondrej Palat would win it for Tampa Bay.
Leave it to Quenneville to come up with the ultimate answer to this “None of The Above Question” as he said “A lot of times in overtime, it’s the guys that are least expected to score, come up large.”
That’s exactly what happened as Ryan Lomberg, who is a fourth line energy player known for his physical play and doesn’t hesitate to amass fighting penalties, scored on a breakaway 5:56 into overtime.
Radko Gudas gained possession off a face off deep in his own zone and flicked the puck ahead to Lomberg, who barreled in on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Just like that, the Panthers now trail the series 2-1 and they have another tough challenge in a Saturday 12:30 matinee at Amalie Arena.
Saturday’s game will be the 12th time these two squads have met this season.
What did we learn about this pivotal game three vs the Lighting?
It was the first time the Panthers have scored multiple power play goals in a playoff game since April 17, 2012 at the New Jersey Devils. Florida was 2-2 with the man advantage.
Six different Panthers scored a power play point. Aleksander Barkov, Patric Hornqvist, Jonathan Huberdeau, Owen Tippett, MacKenzie Weegar and Alex Wennberg.
But this night clearly belonged to Lomberg and Bobrovsky.
In addition to his game winning goal, Lomberg registered seven hits. Lomberg’s overtime goal was Florida’s first playoff overtime game winning goal since Mike Hough scored 8:05 against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 12, 1996.
Lomberg said his team showed a lot of character with their backs to the wall.
“We treated tonight like a must win and you don’t want to be down 3-0. I’m tremendously proud of this group. Bob (goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky) came in and did what he’s capable of, he shut the door and allowed us the opportunity to come back. I’m proud of him and proud of the boys for doing that.
“When you’re a hockey player, a kid growing up it’s what you dream about, the NHL Playoffs. It’s more intense, it’s faster and there’s more emotions that I ever thought there would be. It’s a dream come true. We’re having fun but there’s an ultimate goal and we’re working towards that.”
Huberdeau described what Lomberg means to the team.
“A guy like (Lomberg), who brings emotion like that to the game and to our team. He’s always there on the ice, on the bench he’s getting guys going, on the ice he never takes a shift off, hitting guys and he can play with the puck too. It’s well deserved by him and just a huge goal for us. We really needed that win and he made it happen.”
As for Bobrovsky, he has won each of his last three playoff games in Tampa dating back to April 10, 2019.
He relished the opportunity to come in relief.
“I stayed focused, I do my preparation as I play. During the game, I stay focused, I stay ready. It’s playoff hockey, anything could happen you just have to be ready for the guys. You have to make sure you do your best. If you get the chance to get in, do your job.”
I wonder where Bobrovsky heard that line.
He must be a football fan and has listened to New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick.
Quenneville said he couldn’t be more proud of the way his team competed.
“Now all of a sudden, the picture changes completely in a short amount of time. We’ve been working our tails off, it’s been an unbelievable series, the pace is unbelievable. We need to keep our composure and let’s be smart about it. I liked how Bob came in and settled things down. Lombo (Lomberg) hadn’t played in overtime. The enthusiasm after that goal was as high as I’ve ever seen.”
When asked if Bobrovsky was going to start game four? Quenneville smiled and said, “You’re on the right track.”
Florida’s six goals on Thursday Night ties their most goals in a playoff game in franchise history, marking the third time the Panthers have scored six goals in a playoff game (April 17 & 22, 1996 vs Boston).
Who knows how many they’ll get today when they square off again in Tampa.
But whether it’s a high scoring affair or not, today’s game, which will be seen nationally on CNBC and locally against an angry Lightning team that felt one got away.
Florida is in yet another must win situation.
They’ll either find themselves in a 3-1 hole or this series will be square when the teams return to the BB&T Center Monday Night at 8 PM.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
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