A first period to forget sinks Florida Panthers’ chance to sweep Tampa Bay Lightning

It was a rarity in the series.

The Florida Panthers had come out as the aggressor in each of the first three games of their Stanley Cup Playoffs opening-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They jumped out to an early lead. They made the Lightning work to get back into the game. As a result, Florida stormed to a 3-0 series advantage with a chance to sweep their in-state rival out of the postseason.

Game 4 on Saturday, Florida’s first chance to clinch the series, did not follow that same formula, and the series will continue because of it.

A desperate Lightning team fighting to keep its season alive mounted a three-goal lead in the first 15 minutes and withstood Florida’s comeback attempt to win 6-3 at Amalie Arena.

Florida still leads the best-of-7 series 3-1. Game 5 shifts back to Sunrise’s Amerant Bank Arena and is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday.

“We all know it’s a battle,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “It’s a best-of-7. We’re up 3-1 going home. We’re still in a good spot.”

How did this one unfold?

In essence, the exact opposite of how Florida has won the first three games of the series.

Consider the following:

Florida scored the opening goal in each of the first three games and trailed for all of 7:02 in the series entering Saturday — and all of that deficit came in the second period of Game 3.

The Panthers never led at any point on Saturday.

Through the first three games of the series, Florida gave up just one goal and allowed just 17 total shots on goal in the first period.

On Saturday, the Lightning got 14 shots on goal and three got past Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Steven Stamkos opened scoring with a power-play goal 8:54 into regulation on a wrist shot after Bobrovsky made three big stops earlier in the sequence.

Just over three minutes later, Brandon Hagel scored a shorthanded goal after skating basically the length of the ice and firing a wrist shot from the left circle to put Tampa up 2-0.

And then just about three minutes after that, Brayden Point put the Lightning up 3-0 with a wrap-around shot while the game was at four-on-four.

“We weren’t very good,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “We were slow. ... That’s a recipe for a tough one.”

Added Barkov: “When they score three goals in the first period, that’s hard to come back from.”

Florida did respond with three goals in the second by Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart and Oliver Ekman-Larsson to put the Panthers within a goal, but the Lightning scored twice more in the third and held the Panthers to just five shots on goal in the final frame to seal their first win of the series.

“It was nice to get a couple and make it a game,” Verhaeghe said, “but at the end of the day, we gave up three in the first but they’re a really good team and they’re gonna make you pay if you give them a lot of chances.”

The Panthers had generally won the special teams battle, with Florida’s penalty kill holding Tampa Bay to two power-play goals in 12 attempts.

On Saturday, the Lightning scored twice on the power play, once shorthanded, twice at four-on-four.

When the game was at five-on-five on Saturday, Florida had a 23-18 edge in shots on goal and outscored Tampa Bay 3-1.

“A bit of a strange game with the five-on-fours and four-on-fours and five-on-threes,” Maurice said. “We’re going to have to find a way to stay out of the box.”

Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy went toe-to-toe in the first three games, with each trading big saves.

On Saturday, Vasilevskiy was the better of the two veteran netminders. Of Bobrovsky’s six goals surrendered in Game 4, only two were classified as coming against high-danger shots.

“They made good plays,” Bobrovsky said. “I’ve got to give them credit.”

While the loss stung, Florida also understands the bigger picture. The Panthers are still in a good spot in the series overall. They still have three more chances to get the final win they need to advance to the second round.

Their next shot will be on home ice.

“What’s interesting is the shift outside the room is always far greater than the shift in the room,” Maurice said. “We did what we needed to do at home; we won the first two games. And then we did what we needed to do on the road and split. We have three and yeah you want to win that fourth one, but they have a pretty good team over there; they don’t want to lose. We’re gonna fool around with some things, fire ourselves back up. I think the intensity just continues to grow.”