Facing elimination, Lightning hope to turn tide in Game 4 vs. Panthers

BRANDON — There’s little solace in leaning on “what ifs” when you’re trying to climb out of a hole like the one the Lightning find themselves in. But that might be their best way to look at things as they stare the offseason in the face.

They are on the brink of elimination, trailing the Panthers three games to none in their first-round playoff series. Their season could be over as soon as Saturday, unless they are able to extend it with a Game 4 win at Amalie Arena.

The games have been tight. Two one-goal games, including one decided in overtime, and another that was a one-goal game until Florida scored an empty-netter in the final minute.

“We look at the totality of this series, we look on the board, and one team’s got three, one team has zero,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “What comes around goes around. ... We have felt as we’ve looked at this series that some of the things that have gone our way at times (in the past) haven’t gone our way this time.

“Things are going to come around,. We just need them to come around a little quicker, because we’re doing a lot of good things.”

In the history of the NHL, a 3-0 deficit is nearly insurmountable. Only four teams have come back from 3-0 to win a series, none since 2014. The Lightning have been down 3-0 twice in the playoffs and were swept both times.

“Every single person here believes,” forward Nick Paul said. “I truly believe that. I’ve never given up belief in any of these players. Every single one of them. If there’s a team that can do it, it’s us.”

The Lightning had a critical opportunity to get back into the series midway through Game 3 Thursday at Amalie Arena. They had a 2-1 lead, their first lead of the series, after goals by Steven Stamkos and Tyler Motte in the first three minutes of the second period.

But their push wasn’t enough to take control of the game. About two minutes after Motte’s goal, Lightning rookie defenseman Emil Lilleberg had an open look off from the left circle off a long rebound but was robbed by Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Twenty five seconds after that, Tampa Bay defenseman Darren Raddysh hit the post with a shot.

Instead of building on their lead, the Lightning let the Panthers tie the game midway through the period on Sam Reinhart’s goal, one of the few times Florida built extended zone time in the first half of the period. It was the first of three straight goals for the Panthers, who went on to win 5-3.

The Lightning’s top-ranked power play unit was 0-for-4, making it 2-for-12 in the series. It did have one apparent man-advantage goal taken off the scoreboard when a Panthers challenge found that Brandon Hagel was offside.

The Lightning have had opportunities throughout the series, whether it was Stamkos hitting the post during a power play in Game 1 or Bobrovsky robbing Matt Dumba in a tied Game 2.

“We believe that they’re close games and we’re just going to find a way to put it in our favor,” Paul said. “We have our chances, they have their chances. The big thing has been bend, don’t break, and I feel like we’ve had some good pushback. We had the lead the other night. But just finishing that 60 (minutes) and finishing on top.”

This isn’t the first time the Lightning have been up against the wall. In early January, they were out of a playoff spot, in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2017. But their leadership core rallied the team, and it was one of the league’s best over the final three months of the season. Tampa Bay emerged from a cluttered group of teams to clinch a playoff spot with two weeks left in the regular season.

“Drawing from the past is always a tactic, something you can do, something that’s already happened,” Cooper said. “The problem with it, it’s already happened, and you need for it now to happen again. But I do think that garners belief. Hey, we’ve got a formula for success. We believe in this, so now can we recreate that mindset moving forward? That’s what you hope for your team to do, and then see what happens.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice expects plenty of fight from the Lightning in Game 4. These teams are more than rivals, and while the edge seems to have tipped from Tampa Bay to Florida, both teams have shown this season they will battle to the end.

“It’s tight, and that’s what we’ll expect coming to the rink for the next game,” Maurice said. “This is going to be as tight. We came up and put nine on them here one night and they never stopped. ... It was one of those aberration nights where everything you throw goes in, but they never stopped working.

“Then they came to our building the next game and they got (ahead 4-1) on us (in an eventual 5-3 Florida loss). We put up 50 (shots) that night. We won’t quit. That’s our expectation for the next game.”

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