BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
Is there an easy way to say this? No.
The Florida Panthers have a lot of work to do if their going to make a successful run at Lord’s Stanley Cup.
They did a nice job setting themselves up during the regular season to gain home ice advantage in the first round matchup against their I-75 Rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Sunshine State Series currently stands 2-0 in favor of the defending Stanley Cup Champions from Tampa Bay.
On Tuesday Night, Coach Joel Quenneville attempted to make a change at goaltender by inserting Chris Driedger in the pipes on his 27th birthday. Driedger became the first rookie to start a playoff game in club history.
It was definitely a thrill for Driedger making his first career playoff appearance.
Quenneville said before the game that the decision to use Driedger was a performance based deal and this would be no different than the regular season. He was happy that he had two good options in goal.
His first option Sergei Bobrovsky who lost 5-4 on Sunday Night.
How would Driedger fare against the Lightning at the BB&T Center?
If it were up to him, he would like to do the first period over as the Lightning out shot the Panthers 16-9 and took a 2-0 lead.
Not a good idea to spot a championship team two goals.
Driedger was the victim of some bad luck.
He had a bounce off a Panther and a bounce off the post.
On the first goal, Alex Killeen fed a pass across the slot to Steven Stamkos, Driedger slid to his right, and Stamkos tried to send the puck back to Killeen. It never got there, nor did it have to; sliding Florida defenseman Anton Stralman deflected the puck into the net. As I said, bad luck.
Goal number two occurred as Ondrej Palat was the lucky recipient of a puck that just happened to come his way. Brayden Point tried to beat Driedger over the left shoulder; his shot hit the post and caromed to Palat, who took care of business.
It was as simple as that.
The Panthers simply never recovered.
Florida’s lone goal occurred at the 14:21 mark of the second period and closed the gap to 2-1 by Mason Marchment with assists coming from Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe.
Marchment’s goal was his first playoff tally marking the second consecutive game a Panthers rookie scored a point in the playoffs.
In Game 1, Owen Tippett got a point.
Marchment is the fifth rookie to score a goal for the Panthers in club history. The others were Tippett, Ed Jovanovski, Radek Dvorak and David Nemirovsky.
The Panthers outshot Tampa Bay in the second frame 11-4, but Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stymied the Panthers.
He would go on and earn the first star of the game.
Florida pressed the Lightning in the third period by outshooting them 13-9, but couldn’t find the back of the net.
Florida outshot Tampa Bay 33-29 in the game.
Yanni Gourde added an empty net goal off a giveaway with 1:25 remaining in the third period to clinch the 3-1 win.
The teams that win Stanley Cup Championships generally ride a hot goaltender all the way to the promised land and Tampa Bay has their stud.
That doesn’t bode well for the Panthers as they couldn’t get out of town fast enough to head to Tampa.
But Florida is going to have to deal with:
1. They have never won a series after dropping the first two games, falling on three previous occasions and now need to win four out of five if this will be the season in which it ends a 25-year postseason series win drought.
2. Tuesday’s game was the 50th playoff game in Florida’s franchise history. The Panthers went 9-3 in their first 12 postseason contests. They’re 10-28 since.
3. Tampa Bay was 21-7 at home this season, but Florida was the only team to be the Lightning twice on their home ice.
4. Florida can’t afford to get behind after two periods because now Tampa Bay is 28-0 this season, including both games of this series. The Lightning have won 41 such games going back to last season and their run to the Stanley Cup.
After the game, the message was very clear. The team is staying positive and realize this is a best of seven series.
Quenneville said the team needs more guys to be at their best.
“We fought back and had a good later part of the second (period). We were in the right spots and we just couldn’t buy the goal we were looking for. They played hard and I think we were working with everything we could do. We’re going to have to push every envelope we can to make sure that we’re going to be the best we can going forward.
“Against a great team like that you’re going to have to find ways and have to earn your breaks. They’re a good team with the lead. Chris Driedger was composed, kept us in the game and gave us a chance. We have to go home and get refreshed.”
Driedger said it was pretty special to play on his birthday but was definitely disappointed with the end result.
“We’re not going to dwell on this game. We’re going to go to Tampa ready to win. We have confidence in our group. We’re looking forward to getting back into the W column.”
Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar added, “By all means, we’re not even close to out of this series yet. We played great all year on the road. We’ve just got to stick with it here. No one’s hanging there heads here. We’re going to move into this next game and bring it to them in their own rink.”
A crowd of 9,646 provided lots of energy for the Panthers. Barkov said the team, “loved it. We enjoyed it. We just couldn’t come up with wins.”
Barkov said the task in Tampa is very simple.
“We’ve got a good chance to win the next game. We have to play smart. We had good periods, good shifts. We’ve got to stick to our game.
“We’ve got to find a way to make that 60-minute effort from the whole team, every player, and we’ll be find.”
Barkov said the magic words 60-MINUTE EFFORT because that’s what it will take for Florida to remain in the playoffs.
It’s one thing to talk about playing hard and saying the right things.
Judging by what I saw on Tuesday Night, there is no question that Quenneville made the right decision by playing Driedger and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him face the Lightning on Thursday at 6:30 PM.
The game will be televised nationally on the USA Network as well as locally.
For a team that has come a long way the past two seasons under Quenneville, if the Panthers want National respect, they need to win important hockey games.
In the long run, the best thing that can happen to this franchise is to become contenders so they can return to national television and let people know that South Florida can be an excellent hockey destination.
But to do that, they need to start performing in the postseason.
The numbers don’t currently indicate that now.
But a win on Thursday Night in Amalie Arena would be a great way to gain some kind of national respect, but more importantly stay alive in the Central Division, Sunshine State Showdown.
We’ll know in a matter of hours if they’re still in this series or forced to come from a practically impossible 3-0 playoff deficit.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
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