How Lightning fell so flat in lopsided loss to Panthers

TAMPA — Over the course of a season, every team eventually finds itself on the short side of a lopsided score.

Saturday night at Amalie Arena, the Lightning emerged from a 9-2 rout at the hands of the cross-state Panthers determined to prove they’re far from the team that had everything go against it.

“That’s not the team we are, and that’s not what we do every single night,” said Lightning left wing Brandon Hagel, who gave the Lightning the lead 24 seconds in, only to see Tampa Bay allow nine straight goals, including four in the final 13 minutes of the first period.

“It was their night, not ours. I mean, we’re not going to give up nine goals — maybe once a year.”

The defeat snapped the Lightning’s three-game win streak and was their first loss in their past nine home games. The Panthers have won 11 straight on the road, one game shy of the NHL record.

“They just outskated us. They won their puck battles, they won the special team war. If there’s a TV timeout to be won, they won that, too,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They had the puck luck on their side with a couple go off us, but for 59 minutes and 36 seconds, one team was better than the other.”

“Does that make them a better team than us? I don’t think so, but (Saturday) they were the better team. ... Any time we tried to answer, the harder we tried, the worse it got.”

There might be no hotter team than the Panthers — since Dec. 23, their 18 wins and 38 points are most in the NHL — and because of that, they’ve pushed their way to the top of the Atlantic Division standings.

The Lightning know the Panthers’ game well. They’re fast on the puck, relentless in their possession battles and get on top of their opposition quickly. And in recent years, Florida has handed Tampa Bay some of its worst losses.

With the loss and Toronto’s win over Anaheim, the Lightning (30-21-5, 65 points) fell out of third place in the division and into the first wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I’ve been on both sides of these types of nights, and it’s tough when you’re on this side,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, “but the response (Monday against Ottawa) is when we’ll see where we are.”

Unable to answer

The Panthers’ rally started with a seemingly harmless shot by Brandon Montour from the blue line off a faceoff win at the right circle. Montour’s shot hit off Lightning defenseman Emil Lilleberg, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had little chance of tracking it from there.

It was that kind of night for Florida. At 12:28, Nikita Kucherov was unable to get the puck out of the Lightning zone, and a turnover put the puck on the stick of Matthew Tkachuk. He drew the defense to him as he entered the slot, then fed Sam Bennett for a one-timer from the right circle to put the Panthers up 2-1.

Florida took a two-goal lead after dumping the puck into the Lightning zone five minutes later. Ryan Lomberg beat Stamkos to the puck and fed fourth-line center Kevin Stenlund, who had a step on Brayden Point. Stenlund had an open look from the left hash and beat Vasilevskiy glove-side.

It was a rough night for the Lightning’s top line of Stamkos, Point and Kucherov. Point and Kucherov were both minus-4, Stamkos minus-3. The trio combined for just one shot on goal during 5-on-5 play before Hagel and Stamkos switched places after the Lightning fell behind 3-1.

A failed challenge

The Lightning couldn’t stop the game from snowballing on them late in the first, as Gustav Forsling scored with 1:22 left to put the Panthers up 4-1. Tampa Bay challenged the goal, as replays showed Carter Verhaeghe’s stick making contact with Vasilevskiy’s glove. But the replay center in New York ruled that incidental contact occurred in the white ice, which does not constitute goaltender interference.

The failed challenge put the Lightning on a penalty kill that carried into the second period. Florida took advantage on Tkachuk’s goal 23 seconds into the period, as the puck went off Erik Cernak’s stick and in.

“We’re already bleeding a little bit,” Stamkos said. “I think if it was a tighter game, we probably don’t challenge that one. But at that point, it’s a what-the-heck type of moment. Let’s just try to see if we can take one off the board, maybe get some momentum, but it didn’t work out.”

Tkachuk scored another power-play goal 74 seconds later after Cernak was whistled for a cross check, making it 6-1.

Vasilevskiy fights through

Vasilevskiy is rarely pulled from a game, because he usually fights to stay in. Despite allowing six goals in the first 22 minutes, he stayed in for the remainder of the second period before Jonas Johansson relieved him to start the third.

The six goals Vasilevskiy allowed on 22 shots tied a season high. He also permitted six in a Dec. 2 afternoon game in Dallas, the only other game in which Vasilevskiy has been pulled from a start this season.

“He’s got a ton of pride,” Cooper said. “He wanted to stick that out … Vasy is a part of our team, too. He wants to be part of it. He never wants to take the easy way out, so I love that about him, and we got through the rest of the second and didn’t give anything else up. And they had a couple of chances. ... So that’s why Vasy is the best in the world. He’s a gamer.”

The game quickly became more lopsided with Johansson in net, as he yielded three goals in the first 4:09 of the third to make it 9-1. Johansson, who has had just two starts in the new year, allowed three goals on eight shots in the period.

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