TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Steven Stamkos scored two goals and Nikita Kucherov had a goal and three assists and the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Florida Panthers 5-1 to move to the brink of another trip to the Eastern Conference final on Sunday.
Corey Perry and Erik Cernak also scored, and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy had 34 saves to help the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions take a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Panthers, who had the NHL’s best record during the regular season.
Game 4 is Monday night at Amalie Arena, where the Lightning have won three of four games this postseason. One more victory will send them to the Eastern Conference final for the sixth time in eight years.
Vasilevskiy allowed just one goal for the fourth straight game after allowing at least three in each of Tampa Bay’s first six games this postseason. He’s been helped in that dominating stretch, as his teammates in front of him have helped by playing excellent team defense.
Sam Reinhart scored Florida’s lone goal in Game 3, snapping a puzzling 0-for-25 start to the playoffs for the Panthers’ power play.
Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 31 of 34 shots, with Perry and Cernak both scoring only moments after Florida killed off penalties in the first and second periods. Stamkos’ one-timer off a pass from Kucherov made it 3-1 midway through the second.
Kucherov and Stamkos added empty-net goals in the final four minutes after the Panthers removed Bobrovsky in favor of an extra attacker.
Perry, who signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent after being part of teams that lost to the Lightning in each of the past two Stanley Cup Finals, re-directed Ryan McDonagh’s shot past Bobrovsky to get the defending champs an early lead.
The Panthers, 0-for-25 on the power play through their first nine playoff games, finally broke through to tie it 1-all with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov setting up Reinhart to beat Vasilevskiy from in front of the net.
Ultimately, though, Florida paid for its inability to capitalize on other opportunities.
Barkov just missed answering Cernak’s goal that put the Lightning ahead 2-1, sending a shot from the right circle off the post. The Panthers also narrowly missed pulling even during a second-period power play that produced several chances, including Huberdeau’s wide-open look that McDonagh deflected up over the net with his stick.
Florida finished 1-for-3, dropping to 1-for-28 in man-advantage situations this postseason.
NOTES: With his 50th career playoff goal, Perry moved ahead of Brad Marchant and Patrick Bergeron into sole possession of sixth place among active career playoff goal leaders. ... The Lightning are 9-0 in best-of-seven series in which they’ve won the first two games, including last year’s first-round victory over the Panthers. ... Lightning C Brayden Point missed his third consecutive game because of a lower body injury suffered during Tampa Bay’s Game 7 victory over Toronto in the first round.
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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press