‘A fatal mistake’: Lightning stuns Panthers with 3.8 seconds left to take 2-0 series lead

·5 min read

The clock showed 0.9 seconds remaining and the Florida Panthers were frozen on the ice. Ross Colton had stumbled to the ground in joy and the Panthers were gobsmacked.

An inexplicable defensive breakdown with overtime mere seconds away led to the unthinkable. Colton — with 3.8 seconds left, as the clock was eventually reset to — beat Sergei Bobrovsky and the Tampa Bay Lightning stunned Florida, 2-1, on Thursday in Sunrise.

It was, interim coach Andrew Brunette said, “a fatal mistake.”

“That can’t happen there,” center Eetu Luostarinen said.

Now, the Panthers’ season — the best in franchise history, by virtually every regular-season measure — is on life support in the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. For the second straight year, Florida trails the Lightning, 2-0, in a postseason series and will head to the Tampa Bay area in need of at least one win to keep its season alive and guarantee at least one more home game.

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Both of the Panthers’ losses in South Florida will feel like missed opportunities, but Game 1 — a three-goal loss, largely because of the vast special-teams difference between the two in-state rivals — was nothing compared to this. The Panthers had erased a 1-0, first-period lead and spent most of the third threatening for their own go-ahead goal, besting Tampa Bay in every shot-, possession- and chance-tracking metric, especially during 5-on-5 play.

All it took was one breakdown. With about 15 seconds left, star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar — maligned throughout these Stanley Cup playoffs because of his penchant for giveaways — threw the puck into the neutral zone and away to the Lightning. It gave Tampa Bay one final chance to avoid overtime in a game it probably should’ve lost.

Nikita Kucherov drifted behind Florida’s net and the puck found him there. Instead of staying in his passing lanes and sealing off the front of the goal, Weegar and fellow defenseman Gustav Forsling both went for the star right wing, and left Colton all alone along the crease.

Kucherov, a former Hart Memorial Trophy winner and one of the best passers in the league, teed up Colton and the versatile Lighting forward went top shelf over Bobrovsky to win the game, leaving most of the 19,716 inside FLA Live Arena in stunned silence.

“We played 59 minutes and 40 seconds, where we had very little, limited mistakes,” Brunette said. “That 20 seconds is one that stings.”

The Panthers finished the game with a 37-29 edge in shots on goal, a 72-53 edge in total shot attempts and a 30-29 edge in scoring chances. Through two games in the series, Florida has outshot Tampa Bay, 69-63, with a 65-55 advantage in scoring chances.

The differences have mostly been the same as they were a year ago, when the Lightning ousted the Panthers in six games in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. Tampa Bay has gone 4 of 9 on the power play and ridden the play of All-Star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to win close games.

None, however, had been quite as close as Game 2.

Florida fell behind with 7:54 left in the first period on another power-play goal when Lightning right wing Corey Perry redirected a pass from superstar forward Steven Stamkos to beat Bobrovsky. It was the sixth straight game the Panthers fell behind and, after capping their first-round win by pulling off three straight come-from-behind victories, they have so far not been able to rally past the reigning back-to-back champion.

The power-play futility is part of why — Florida went 0 for 4 on Thursday, and is now 0 for 7 in the series and 0 for 25 in these Cup playoffs — and so is Vasilevskiy, who made 36 saves and has now stopped 69 of 71 shots he has seen in this series.

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Most importantly, Tampa Bay has owned the decisive moments late in games. On Tuesday, the Lightning scored twice in the final 4:56 to turn a one-goal game into a three-goal victory. On Thursday, Tampa Bay scored basically as late as possible to dash the Panthers’ hopes to even the series.

“It’s playoff hockey,” Bobrovsky said. “It’s tight.”

They were building toward a comeback for most of the second half of the game, too. After Luostarinen scored a game-tying goal with 1:53 let in the second period, Florida put together 12 scoring chances and four high-danger chances in the third. The Panthers even almost scored a go-ahead goal on a power play in the second, only to have Vasilevskiy rob winger Anthony Duclair with a sliding left-pad save in the waning seconds of the period.

Down the stretch of the third, Bobrovsky one-upped his counterpart when he slid to his left, stuck his glove in the air and snared a one-timer by Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat to keep the game tied with 4:03 left.

“Both were great. I thought it was a great hockey game,” Brunette said. “They got one at the end.”

Florida knows it has to be basically perfect to beat Tampa Bay, though. The Lightning has won two straight Stanley Cups for a reason and the Panthers, who had gone 26 years without winning a postseason series before they got by the Washington Capitals in Round 1 last week, have now lost 6 of 8 to their rival in the last two playoffs.

While most of the crowd filed out of the arena for perhaps the last time all season, the blue dots pepper among the sea of red remained and chanted, “Let’s go Bolts!”

Florida won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time this year by tying an NHL record with 39 come-from-behind wins and protecting home ice better than anyone else in the league.

The Panthers will need another comeback and they’ll need to do it will need to start in Tampa or those chants will be the last thing heard in this building in the 2021-22 NHL season.

“It’s one of those things that hurts, obviously,” Brunette said, “but it’s a roller-coaster ride that we’re in and the sun’ll come up. Wake up and keep playing like we’re playing.”

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