BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
The Florida Panthers are coming back home.
Unfortunately, it will be without the Tampa Bay Lightning as the Cats were eliminated Wednesday Night in Tampa falling 4-0 in Game 6 of their playoff series.
The defending Stanley Cup Champions once again scored early and the Panthers found themselves chasing their Sunshine State I-75 Rivals.
What led to the Panthers downfall at Amalie Arena?
They couldn’t solve Tampa Bay Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 29 shots and wrapped up a series with a Game 6 shutout for the second straight time.
Vasilevskiy also shut out the Dallas Stars last year to win the Stanley Cup.
He was named the game’s No.1 Star.
The Lightning grabbed the early lead when Tyler Johnson raced past Anton Stralman to negate an icing call, picked up the puck behind the net to feed a backhand pass in front. After the puck initially bounced, Pat Maroon was able to get a whack at in the air to backhand it past Panthers rookie goaltender Spencer Knight at 6:16 of the first period, giving Tampa a 1-0 lead.
In the second period, Florida’s Sam Bennett took an undisciplined penalty at 12:53 by putting Lightning defenseman David Savard in a headlock and then ripped his helmet off.
The roughing penalty led to Tampa Bay’s second power play chance of the game and second goal. Nikita Kucherov fed the puck up high to Victor Hedman who one-touched a pass over to Steven Stamkos at the left circle for a one-timer at 13:27 of the second period giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead.
With the exception of Game 5, the team that scored first proceeded to win the game.
Braydon Point put the game away at 14:36 of the third period dancing around MacKenzie Weegar down low and drawing Knight to the ice before tucking the puck around the goaltenders left pad.
Tampa Bay added an empty net goal from Alex Killarney with 1:42 left in the game to make the score 4-0.
Knight finished the game with 20 saves facing a team that has now advanced to the second round for the fifth time in the past seven years, showing they know what it takes to win and advance in the postseason, improving to 9-0 in the next game following a playoff loss dating back to last season.
During the series, the Lightning scored a franchise record 24 goals against Florida which utilized three goaltenders.
The Panthers didn’t have an answer for Kucherov, who set a franchise record with 11 points in the series, beating his old mark of 10 against New Jersey in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs.
Kucherov and Victor Hedman both finished the series with eight assists to tie the franchise playoff record for the most assists in a postseason series. The mark was originally set by Kucherov against the New York Islanders in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
When you look at the overall series, 13 different Panthers recorded multiple points over the six-game matchup, including two rookies: Owen Tippett, and Mason Marchment, and four defenseman: Weegar, Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling and Keith Yandle.
Gudas led Florida with 39 hits over the series.
Jonathan Huberdeau led the Panthers with 10 points (2-8-10) over the six-game series, setting a franchise record for most assists and points in a playoff series.
With his win in Game 5, Knight became the youngest goaltender in franchise history to record a playoff win and the youngest goaltender in NHL history to win a playoff game when facing elimination.
The Panthers 2020-21 regular season was the best regular season in franchise history in terms of points percentage (37-14-5, .705).
These are the building blocks that the team has to look towards the future.
But before the game, the team knew it had to play a helluva 60 minutes against a battle tested champion. They simply fell short on Wednesday Night.
This game wasn’t about noise level in Tampa or Knight not being able to masterfully repeat the spectacular performance he had on Monday Night at the BB&T Center.
The Panthers simply ran into a hungry buzz saw in the Tampa Bay Lightning despite outshooting their opponent 29-24.
This was a physical series that saw 42 power plays by both teams.
When the game was over, Panthers held their heads up and took some time to reflect on the season as well as their 4-2 series defeat.
Coach Joel Quenneville said his team learned some valuable lessons about the playoffs.
“We learned how hard it is to win. There’s a lot of good things that happened to our team. I love how we competed in this playoff. The guys laid it out there and we had a chance.
“I thought all year long we were pretty consistent in being involved and getting points every night, playing hard night in and night out. Our depth, we pushed one another in a productive way.
“We go home in the summer here, you look at it. There’s a lot of positives, but you’re always looking to get better. You can’t be satisfied with the improvement that we did have this year, which was significant. That’s the rate we want to get better at.”
The coach did say that he’s excited about Spencer Knight.
“Those regular season games he played, it’s a tremendous start to your career, great exposure to the best players in the game, great shooters. Goalies are like an acquired art, learn from your experiences, different shooters, you can anticipate a bit more, predict where the shot is going a little bit more. He’s a student of the game. It’s going to be beneficial over time.”
Huberdeau said the series could have gone either way.
“We were down 2-0 early, that could have went the other way. We’re disappointed but you play hockey to win. Our crowd, I loved the atmosphere at home and we wanted to come back for Game 7. This year was the most fun I’ve had. We had a good group, it just didn’t go our way in the first (period).
“We had a good team this year, and in the first round we played a really good team. We got beat but we played well, we had our chances. Organization wise, it was good to see that, good to see the fans and get back into a winning culture. That’s what we wanted. This year was a great season. I think next year we come back with a better attitude and we can be a great team.”
Barkov said he was extremely proud of his teammates.
“We had a hell of a regular season and in the playoffs we played good hockey. We tried our best but credit Tampa too.
“This year felt way different. It was like a new start for me and everyone in this organization. That’s how we felt and that’s how we played like a fresh team, fresh organization. We had a lot of fun and it sucks that it ended this way.”
Spencer Knight figures to gain a lot by all of this.
Chris Driedger will become an unrestricted free agent and figures to earn more money on the open market and become a starter.
Knight probably learned plenty from Driedger while he was here as well as Sergei Bobrovsky, who is under contract and figures to return next season.
The 20-year-old goaltender described what things have been like since joining the team a few months ago and what he learned.
“It was good to get a taste of what playoffs are like. For me coming in, I was just trying to help the team win. That was my priority and to have fun while I was doing it. In a couple weeks, after I decompress. I’ll look back at it from a different point of view, but for now, it’s tough to lose. I don’t like losing hockey games, but when it ends your season, it’s tough. But overall, coming in was great, great group.
“I think when I came in, everyone in the room, all my teammates, the coaches, staff members, everyone around the rink welcomed me with open arms. It was really helpful, made me more comfortable right away. That allowed me to transition to doing what I like to do, and that’s play hockey.”
During the regular season, Florida had a 5-2-1 record against the Lightning and secured home ice advantage in the first round.
They found out quickly that the playoffs were a different animal as the Lightning had a lot of players return from injuries, namely Kucherov.
Now Florida is going home for the rest of the summer.
Like every team that departs the playoffs, the lessons are hard and player turnover is inevitable.
We can’t tell you at the moment who will stay and who will go.
Nor at this time are we going to get into that discussion.
What I can tell you is that the teams will play an 82-game regular season in 2021-2022 and won’t see each opponent in their division eight times as we did this year.
The Seattle Kraken join the NHL and there is an expansion draft to deal with. This will be a 32 team league.
More importantly, Florida’s travel next year will be demanding when you figure they’ll be changing time zones as they start playing teams on the West Coast and travel to Canada.
It will be interesting to see how these players grow as a unit over the course of a long grueling season as the NHL treads towards the past Covid-19 Era.
The season figures to be a marathon.
Also, as members of the media, it remains to be seen whether Zoom continues to be the norm to communicate with players, coaches, etc... or will there be direct access at practice and locker room access.
I’ll be curious to see how all of this plays out and here at the South Florida Tribune, we’ll keep you posted about the off-season developments.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
You can see his broadcasts on The South Florida Tribune You Tube Channel and subscribe for free.