BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
It didn’t take long for the Florida Panthers to figure out that there is a major difference between the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Florida entered Sunday Night’s NHL Playoff, Central Division Matchup, with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning its six last regular season games including the final two home contests against their intrastate I-75 rival.
During those final two games, Florida out scored Tampa Bay 9-1 and they won the season series 5-2-1.
The Panthers game against the Lightning was on NBCSN in Prime Time and this was an opportunity for them to show the rest of the world they’re ready to make a championship run.
Nothing like the final game of the night and the main event.
All-season long, I’ve watched these two teams demonstrate the hatred for one another as there would be no shortage of physical play, penalties which resembled a Heavyweight Boxing Fight.
There was one major difference on Sunday Night.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had many of their top players return to the lineup.
And they made a difference.
Nikita Kucherov scored two power play goals in his first appearance after missing the entire regular with a hip injury.
Kucherov had surgery on December 29, and played his first game since September 28, 2020.
Since his NHL debut in 2013-14, Kucherov has scored 38 post-season goals, tying him with Alex Ovechkin for most among all players.
Steven Stamkos, who hadn’t played since April 8 with a lower-body injury, a span of 16 games, Victor Hedman (lower-body), Ryan McDonagh (upper-body) returned after each missed the last two games of the regular season, which were Florida Panthers wins.
Hedman made his presence felt on Sunday Night with three assists.
Kucherov went on to have a three point night. McDonagh had two assists, while Stamkos’ leadership was valuable and he also had an assist as the Lightning defeated the Panthers 5-4.
This was a game that featured four lead changes.
The National TV Audence saw Florida out hit Tampa Bay 54-36. The scoresheet was filled with roughing penalties. The Lightning power play was lethal as it was 3-4. Meanwhile, Florida was 1-3 with the man advantage.
Tampa Bay’s Blake Coleman found the scoresheet by scoring a short-handed goal, was sent to the penalty box for roughing and slashing penalties, plus was a victim of a charging penalty as he was drilled by Florida’s Sam Bennett.
The boarding incident by Bennett was reviewed by the NHL Office on Monday and as a result, he was suspended for game two, on Tuesday Night. Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper went on record by saying that Bennett’s hit was predatory.
Evidently, the NHL agreed and that’s why they took swift action.
For Florida, Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists, Owen Tippett and Aleksander Barkov each scored a goal and an assist. Carter Verhaeghe scored a goal against his former team. He was on last season’s Lightning squad which earned him a championship ring.
Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 34 shots, Keith Yandle and Bennett had two assists.
Bennett had a power play goal negated when he pushed the puck past Andre Vasilevskiy at 7:26 of the first period, but it was waived off due to goalie interference. The Tampa net-minder made 35 saves in the contest.
After the pre-game skate early on Sunday Morning, the Panthers were extremely optimistic they would win the opening game after a weeks worth of rest. You could see that energy early in the game after they took a 2-1 lead at the end of the first period.
But make no bones about it, the main storyline is the “Return of Several Lightning Players” which to me, is as good as a team making key acquisitions at the trade deadline.
Let’s not forget the biggest thing and that the Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup Champions!
When the game is over, the Panthers realized an important lesson.
Welcome to the playoffs.
Coach Joel Quenneville wasn’t going to dwell on the loss, but said, “Every shift is so critical against that team because they can make something out of nothing. There’s things we can take out of that game and learn from and improve. It was a heck of a hockey game.
“This was an intense game and a lot was going on out there. The games we get beat, we’re looking to get educated. We need to improve on special teams. There were a lot of positives.”
Barkov said the loss really stung and, “we’ve moved on already. I know it sucks, but it happened. Now we’ve got to concentrate on next game. We had some momentum in the game, but we have to learn how to defend a little better. Other than that, I liked our effort.”
Bobrovsky added, “We faced a good, skilled team up front. They’ve got the weapons there. But I thought for most of the time, the guys did a great job, five on five we did a great job. It’s a long series, we just have to put that behind and be fresh for the next one. It’s 0-0 next game.”
Tippett echoed his teams thought about the post-season, “throughout the playoffs you go through adversity game in and game out, every shift is important. It’s going to happen, that’s the playoffs. It’s going to go up and down all game long. Just got to stick with it and take it one shift at a time.”
Quenneville decided to give the team Monday off and they’ll have a 10 AM Morning Skate on Tuesday at the BB&T Center.
These two teams will square off on Tuesday Night at 8 PM and the game will be televised on CNBC as well as local television.
While the Panthers lost home-ice advantage after falling to the Lightning, now the main objective is to tie the series at 1-1 and avoid going on the road trailing 2-0.
Nevertheless, as we’ve seen so many times in Sports, the “Playoffs Are A Different Animal.”
Especially after Sunday Night with the Lightning getting many of their great players back.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
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