Brandon Montour pored over the Florida Panthers’ schedule after they traded for him Saturday. He knew he was joining a serious playoff race, with three of the NHL’s best teams jostling for first place, and he was looking for those marquee matchups. He did not have to look far.
The defenseman officially joined the Panthers on Thursday, jumped right into one of Florida’s biggest games of the season — a road test against the defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning — and learned quickly just how competitive this race is shaping up to be for the final month of the season. The Panthers and Lightning were never separated by more than one goal before Tampa Bay pulled out a 3-2, overtime win in Tampa.
“Whether we play them in the playoffs or not, we’ve got to get through them,” Montour said, “or they’ve got to get through us.”
Florida outshot the Lightning, 38-19, but star defenseman Victor Hedman scored on a breakaway with 4:06 left in overtime to beat the Panthers (27-12-5) and send them down to third place in the division.
Tampa Bay (29-12-2) and the Carolina Hurricanes now sit in a tie atop the Central, with Florida one point behind.
There were reasons for the Panthers to be encouraged by their performance Thursday. There were just as many reasons to be frustrated.
Florida controlled possession for most of the game, generated at least a dozen good chances against star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and had a 2-on-1 in overtime just seconds before Hedman scored the game-winner. Still, the Panthers lost despite outplaying the Lightning and gave up precious ground in the division race.
“We were the better team 5-on-5,” Montour said. “It’s one of those things where it was a low scoring game, 2-2, and, like I said, overtime — anything can happen.”
Tampa Bay also needed a pair of comebacks just to get to overtime.
Right wing Patric Hornqvist scored in the first period to give Florida a 1-0 lead and Lightning winger Alex Killorn answered with a power-play goal in the second to keep the two sides knotted deep into the period.
In the final 25 minutes, they brawled, traded highlight-reel goals less than three minutes apart and played 56 heart-pounding seconds of overtime. The NHL moved the game to NBCSN anticipating a thrilling rivalry clash and the rivals delivered.
“We had everything going our way but the finish,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
Tempers were starting to flare throughout the second period, with both teams sensing how tightly contested a battle this was. With about two minutes left in the second, Radko Gudas kicked up the temperature.
The defenseman threw a check at Anthony Cirelli and the Tampa Bay forward tried to jump out of the way. They banged legs and Cirelli helicoptered through the air. The Lightning griped and, a little more than a minute later, everyone finally erupted.
Driedger snared a shot, covered the puck with 44.4 seconds left in the period and Tampa Bay forward Barclay Goodrow threw a late cross check at Montour. Everyone exploded.
Markus Nutivaara went at Goodrow in Montour’s defense and Lighting winger Blake Coleman pried the defenseman away from his teammate. Left wing Mason Marchment jumped into tussle with Goodrow. Nutivaara went at it with Coleman. When Tampa Bay defenseman Erik Cernak pulled Marchment away from Goodrow, star center Aleksander Barkov hopped in to fight with the offender.
When it ended, the Panthers were on the power play and in position to set the tone for the final 20 minutes.
Although they went 0 for 3 on the power play, they started the period by playing exclusively in the Lightning’s zone. After more than seven minutes, their go-ahead breakthrough finally arrived.
With less than 13 minutes remaining, wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair dashed into the zone for a 2-on-1. Huberdeau held up as he crossed into the left faceoff circle, spun around and slid a backhand pass across the ice to Duclair, who buried the go-ahead goal with 12:47 left.
A few minutes later, Tampa Bay answered. The Lightning cycled the puck around the offensive zone on a long possession and Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev launched a pass from the right point across the ice to Ross Colton on the doorstep. The Lighting center stuck out his stick and deflected in a game-tying goal with 10:03 to go. Vasilevskiy blanked Florida the rest of the way.
“You’ve got to give credit to (Vasilevskiy),” Duclair said, “but we’re already moving on to next game and hopefully we can have a better outcome.”
On Saturday, the Panthers will be back on the ice in Tampa — another chance to prove they belong.