On this night, Lightning remind everyone of the team they once were

TAMPA — Because they were quick. They were aggressive. They were angry.

The season lives on.

Because Mikhail Sergachev is fearless. Steven Stamkos is proud. Brandon Hagel is relentless.

There is hope this morning.

Because, it turns out, killing off a champion is hard work.

Yes, the Lightning came through in Game 4 against the Panthers on Saturday evening. They nearly blew a three-goal lead, they were outscored in 5-on-5 situations, and Nikita Kucherov got whacked everywhere he went, but the Lightning hung on for a 6-3 win to avoid a potentially embarrassing first-round sweep.

“It’s far from over, we know that,” said Hagel, who scored two goals. “It’s a period at a time, a game at a time.”

If nothing else, the Lightning reminded you of the team they once were. They didn’t dilly dally through the game’s first 10 minutes and they didn’t allow Florida to immediately answer after every goal. The stars all showed up, and the grinders refused to give in.

From the moment Sergachev’s name was announced in pre-game introductions for the first time since breaking his leg 80 days ago at Madison Square Garden, the Lightning appeared to have the confidence and swagger of postseasons past.

Having fallen behind in the opening period of the three previous games, the Lightning responded by roaring out to a 3-0 lead. And they did it with the kind of splashy moments that defined this franchise in previous championship runs.

A little more than eight minutes into the game, Hagel set up Brayden Point with a perfect pass from behind the net. With one foot in the crease, Point sent a no-look, backhanded pass to Stamkos for a one-timer from the left circle.

“Stamkos will always be associated with that shot,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “It doesn’t take much for him to get it off.”

Over the next seven minutes, the Lightning kept the pressure up with a shorthanded goal from Hagel and a 4-on-4 goal from Point, who outraced Gustav Forsling behind the net and stunned goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky with a wraparound goal.

“We’ve been chasing all series so that was huge,” said Stamkos, who is second in the NHL with five goals this postseason. “Obviously we knew they were going to push in the second.”

After going 0-for-4 on the power play in Game 3, Lightning coach Jon Cooper swapped Hagel for Nick Paul on the first unit. He also teamed Matt Dumba with Victor Hedman on the first defensive pairing while Sergachev slotted in with Erik Cernak.

Did the changes make a huge difference strategically?

Possibly, although the Panthers still outscored the Lightning 3-1 at full strength. The real difference was the Lightning took advantage of nearly every penalty, misstep and opportunity Florida provided. The Lightning scored twice 4-on-4, once 4-on-5, once 5-on-4 and once 5-on-3.

“We just want to be able to play 5-on-5, that’s what we need to do,” Maurice said. “That power play is potent, and 5-on-3 it’s almost a guarantee.”

You can look at all of that in a couple of ways:

If you’re skeptical, you can say Florida still appears to have the deeper, more balanced roster. The Panthers were the better team during the regular season and have outscored the Lightning 10-6 in this series when it comes to 5-on-5. To think the Lightning will suddenly start outperforming Florida’s top-six forwards and punishing defensemen requires a strong imagination.

On the other hand, the Lightning still have the remnants of a Stanley Cup roster. Barely half the team remains from their last championship in 2022, but you’re talking about four potential Hall of Famers (Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy) in that group.

Florida’s biggest mistake on Saturday night — aside from seven penalties — was allowing the Lightning to believe in themselves. Up to this point, the Panthers had not allowed any pushback. Every time the Lightning rallied, the Panthers had immediately answered.

“We’ve had some big moments when the power play could have helped us and it did not,” said Cooper. “Tonight, we needed it. They gave it to us. So I think your confidence starts to brew and all of the sudden you’re getting better looks than you thought you could. Now, you’re getting in the zone easier. There’s so many things that manifest from scoring a power play goal.”

It obviously helped in Game 4. Now, the Lightning need similar help in Games 5, 6 and 7.

It’s been 10 years since an NHL team pulled off a comeback like that.

The Lightning were once that kind of team.

Maybe they still are.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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