By Leo Haggerty


Tampa Bay took a commanding 3-1 first round lead over the Florida Panthers after four contests.  The series resumes tonight at the BB&T Center with the Cats on the verge of elimination.

That is a little surprising to the pundits who only took note of the Lightning the last week or two of the regular season.  The team was, in my humble opinion, both mentally and physically tired, and it showed in their play.

I asked Coach Jon Cooper a question after one of the late season losses that would back up may supposition.  Here’s his response.

LH : It looked like Dallas made you go more east-west in your own zone than you normally do.  What that something they did or was it just you having trouble getting out of your own zone?

JC : No, we just had games like that where we try to make six passes coming out of our zone where we don’t need to.  We never got pucks behind their defense.  We never put them in foot races. They just kept staying on top of us.  We tried to finesse our way out. It wasn’t what we needed to do and what we wanted to do.  Partially, it was what Dallas was doing.  No question.  We weren’t thinking the game fast tonight and it showed.

A six game break to rest and recuperate at the end of the regular season seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for the Lightning.  That time off also allowed the Bolts to assimilate Kucherov and Stamkos back into the fold.

Here are the results of the first four games.  At you will see, only one tilt did not go down to the final minute or overtime to determine a winner.

The Lightning scored in all three periods to defeat the Panthers 5-4 in a surprisingly high scoring affair at the BB&T Center.  The victory gave the Bolts a 1-0 series lead.

F Blake Coleman (1) got Tampa Bay on the board first at 7:42 of the opening period with a short handed goal.  This occurred almost immediately after an apparent Florida marker was negated by the officials after video review.

The Cats came back with two goals before the first period had elapsed.  F Aleksander Barkov (1) lit the lamp with the Panthers on the power play at 9:41 to knot the score at one each.  F Carter Verhaeghe (1) put the home team up 2-1 when his shot managed to get behind Lightning G Andrei Vasilevskiy (35 saves on 39 shots) at 16:31.

Tampa Bay scored two goals in the middle period and both with the man advantage.  F Nikita Kucherov (1), who was playing his first game after sitting out the entire regular season rehabbing from hip surgery, lit the lamp at 4:58 to tie the score at 2 each.  Kucherov (2) beat Panthers G Sergei Bobrovsky (35 saves on 40 shots) at 14:51 to give the Bolts a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes of play.

Florida quickly retook the lead with two early markers in the third period.  F Jonathan Huberdeau (1) tied the score at 3-3 just 1:27 into the final period.  F Owen Tippett (1) gave the Cats a 4-3 lead at 4:09.

The Lightning tied the encounter at 4 all at 13:00 of the last period.  F Brayden Point (1) scored the Bolts third power play goal of the evening.

With just a 1:14 left in regulation Tampa Bay took the lead for good.  Point (2) scored on a breakaway and the Bolts held on for a huge road victory to start the series.

The Lightning scored a 3-1 road win over the Panthers. That gave the Bolts a 2-0 advantage in the series.

Tampa Bay scored first period goals for an early 2-0 advantage.  The initial marker was by F Steven Stamkos (1) at 4:52 and the second was recorded by F Ondrej Palat (1) as his shot got behind Panthers G Chris Driedger (26 saves on 28 shots) at 14:57.

That Cats cut the lead in half at 14:21.  F Mason Marchment (1) maneuvered the puck past Vasilevskiy (32 saves on 33 shots) to get Florida within a goal at 2-1 but that would be the only shot that #88 wouldn’t stop this evening.

Bolts F Yanni Gourde added an empty netter with just 1:25 left in regulation.  That culminated the scoring making the final arithmetic 3-1 in favor of Tampa Bay putting the Lightning up 2-nil in the series.

The Panthers overcame a two goal deficit at the beginning of the third period and recorded a 6-5 overtime win over the Lightning at Amalie Arena. It was the first time all year that the Bolts have lost a contest when leading going into the third period and that was 28 previous games.

The story of the tilt was the game within the game.  The Cats owned the first and third periods while the Bolts dominated the middle 20 minutes.

Florida took a early 2-0 lead in the first period.  F Sam Bennett (1) opened the scoring at 4:31 and that was followed by D    Radko Gudas (1) putting the biscuit in the basket at 7:05.

The Lightning stormed back with 5 goals in the second period.  Tampa Bay went up 3-2 with goals by F Anthony Cirelli (1) at the 1:57 mark.  Then came a marker by F Ross Colton (1) at 5:46.  Stamkos (2) deposited the puck behind G Driedger (17 saves on 22 shots) at 8:32.

Florida slowed the onslaught at 12:34.  With the Panthers on the power play F Alex Wennberg (1) slid the rubber disk past G Vasilevskiy (41 saves on 47 shots) to even the score at 3 each.

The Bolts retook the lead with a couple of power play scores of their own.  Point (3) put Tampa Bay back on top at 14:17 and exactly 4 minutes later F Alex Killorn (1) extended the lead to 5-3.

Before the start of the third period the Cats Coach Joel Quenneville made a change in goal for the Panthers that definitely effected the outcome.  Bobrovsky (9 saves on 9 shots) was inserted into the lineup and shut the Bolts out the rest of the way.  Also, the Florida offense put up a couple of scores to get the game into extra time.  F Patric Hornqvist (1) notched a power play goal just 1:45 into the period and D Gustav Forsling (1) made it 5-5 at 16:42.

Florida secured the victory at 5:56 of the first overtime.  F Ryan Lomberg (1) scored on a breakaway to put the Panthers back in the series now trailing only 2 games to 1.

Tampa Bay scored three first period goals and cruised to a 6-2 triumph over Florida at Amalie Arena. It was the only game so far that wasn’t competitive from start to finish and it led to some extremely physical play when the outcome was no longer in doubt as you will see.

The Lightning jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period.  Cirelli (2) got the Bolts on the board at 3:00 and Gourde (2) added to the count at 7:24.

In all three victories, the Bolts had scored first.  I asked F Tyler Johnson how imortant that is and his response is below.

LH : Tyler, you came out strong and got the first goal.  How important is it to score first in the NHL right now?

TJ : It’s huge especially this late in the season.  Teams are really good structurally and in their system.  We knew we were going to face a desperate team as to where there are right now and what they needed. We wanted to get out to a good start and we did and we took it from there.

The Panthers dented the scoreboard with a power play market at 8:49.  Huberdeau (2) did the honors and that cut the Tampa Bay lead to 2-1.

The Lightning extended their margin at 16:45.  Palat put the biscuit in the basket to give the Bolts a 3-1 advantage at the first intermission.

The second period saw Tampa Bay extended their lead with two early scores. Killorn (2) posted the first one at 5:41 with a power play goal and Killorn (3) repeated that performance at 7:15.  That also marked the end of the evening for Bobrovsky (9 saves on 14 shots) as it put the Lightning up 5-1.

The Cats chipped into that lead at 18:45.  Verhaeghe (2) managed to slip the disk past G Vasilevskiy (39 saves on 41 shots) to give the Panthers hope going into the second intermission down 5-2.

For all intends and purposes, Tampa Bay sealed the deal at 4:47.  Kucherov (3) blasted a rocket by G Driedger (11 saves on 12 shots) with the Lightning on the power play.

From that point on, the play deteriorated and that’s an understatement.  Both Kucherov and D Mikhail Sergachev had to be helped off the ice after some very questionable hits far behind the play.

I meet you at the TV tonight for Game 5 to see if Tampa Bay can close out Florida.  As an added bonus, we’ll see if there’s payback to any of the Panthers stars for their Game 4 antics.  That, in itself, will be worth the watching.  GO BOLTS!