There’s nothing like Playoff Hockey. How much so? Even celebrities from other sports take notice.
Aside from being nice on the eyes, apparently former LGPA pro golfer Paige Spiranac knows her hockey. Of course, she was referencing an unbelievable Game One between the Lightning and Panthers. It had more twists and turns than a rollercoaster. It felt like five games packed into one between the bitter interstate rivals.
If that’s how the first Battle Of Florida is going to be played, we’re in for a treat. Not just orange slices either. Brayden Point scored the game-winner with 1:14 left in regulation on a breakaway to propel the defending champion Lightning to a come from behind 5-4 win before 9,000 screaming fans.
The clutch playoff performer who could easily have shared the Conn Smythe with captain Victor Hedman a year ago, was instrumental in the one-goal win. It was also Point converting on the power play from Nikita Kucherov to tie the score at four. Off came Sam Bennett, whose two undisciplined minor penalties cost his team dearly. Tampa Bay went 3-for-4 on the man-advantage. The five man top unit of a healthy Kucherov (2 PPG’s/assist), Steven Stamkos (2 assists), Point (2 goals), Hedman (3 assists) and Alex Killorn did most of the damage against the feisty Panthers, who probably deserved better.
As Bennett learned the hard way, he and his team must maintain their discipline to win this first round series. This game was so much more than special teams. There were three different periods that felt like they were played in different worlds. You had the chaotic first where after Bennett had a power play goal disallowed for pushing Andrei Vasilevskiy in the crease, Florida gave up a Blake Coleman shorthanded goal. He beat Sergei Bobrovsky with a backhand under the arm to give the Bolts the first goal.
However, the Cats didn’t let that turn of events sidetrack them. Instead, they showed so much energy and electricity that it resulted in a contentious first period that was very physical. Between the heavy hitting, scrums, penalties and intense dislike between these rivals, you sure had the makings for a classic showdown. Even more, here came Florida captain Aleksander Barkov responding with his own power play goal on a rocket one-timer off a good feed from sidekick Jonathan Huberdeau to tie it less than two minutes later. His goal took advantage of a dangerous hit from behind by Ryan McDonagh on Anthony Duclair that could’ve been a boarding major. Had he been seriously hurt, it would’ve been. Instead, Duclair stayed in the game. Hockey player!
There was more action post whistle that led to some entertaining four-on-four hockey. Something we don’t get enough of. How about the wrestling match Barkov got into with Tampa defensemen Jan Ruuta. As legendary hockey voice Doc Emrick would say, “What chaos.”
It sure was. There were a few coincidental minors in the game. Somewhat interestingly, that four-on-four didn’t favor the ultra skilled Lightning. With Barkov off, it was the Panthers who had the better of the play. They really tested Vasilevskiy, who did a good job keeping his team in it. Ironically, Barkov came back from serving the roughing penalty and skated into open space before threading the needle to ex-Bolt Carter Verhaeghe for a bullet past Vasilevskiy at 16:31. That gave the Cats a 2-1 lead. One they deserved. They really outplayed the Bolts, who for a while we’re stuck on eight shots. They were on their heels. Thank Vasilevskiy for bailing them out.
After so many battles during and after whistles, the second saw the more experienced Lightning take control. Looking more settled in and not getting into the track meet the very fast Panthers wanted, they were aided by a lazy Bennett holding minor on Coleman. It didn’t take long for Kucherov to dust off the cobwebs. After blowing a breakaway earlier, he didn’t miss a Hedman pass over into his office, slamming home a one-timer by Bobrovsky to knot the score. The former Hart winner who missed the entire regular season, was just getting warmed up.
With Tampa doing a better job of keeping the Panthers in front of them, that allowed Vasilevskiy to see the shots and stop them. He didn’t have to work as hard. Florida only got one power play compared to three for the Bolts. Some of it was frustration due to some of the liberties Tampa Bay took with Florida’s players. Overall, while the refs led by veteran Dan O’Rourke had firm control, they definitely could’ve made a few more calls on the defending champs. They had the benefit with a couple of key misses during a frenetic third.
On another power play, the Lightning took full advantage of another Florida blown coverage to take the lead. With time winding down on Markus Nutivaara’s trip of Anthony Cirelli, the ineffective Panthers’ penalty kill unit did a poor job by allowing Stamkos and Hedman to find the seam across for another wicked Kucherov finish upstairs on Bobrovsky. His second of the period at 14:51 made it 3-2 Bolts.
Undeterred, the Cats nearly clawed back to tie it. But Vasilevskiy made a key save. On the flip side, Bobrovsky made a lot of quality stops including a pair of denials on Stamkos from his spot on the power play. He didn’t have a bad game. However, it was an overplay on Point’s tying marker that came back to bite him. Overall, he stopped 35 of 40 shots with 30 of 31 coming at even strength. Some of his best work came in the crazy third including a clutch save on Cirelli following a turnover.
There continued to be a lot of animosity and ferocity between the two teams who had a line brawl in a recent regular season meeting that had over 100 penalty minutes. For the Lightning, Coleman was involved in quite a bit of it. In the first, he slashed Frank Vatrano, who got called for embellishment to the displeasure of the pro Panthers crowd. Late in the second, he got into a tussle with fourth liner Ryan Lomberg, who wouldn’t back down. Each were sent off for matching roughs. It certainly fired up the fans. To be honest, this is the series I was most excited about. I knew it would be intense. I hope it goes seven games.
After not having their best period due to penalty trouble, the Cats came out flying in the third period. On just a great shift started by Owen Tippett, Bennett was able to find Huberdeau behind the Tampa D. Despite getting hooked from behind, he was able to surprise Vasilevskiy with a trick shot five-hole that tied the game at 1:27. If that was his intention, it was brilliant. Huberdeau was splendid throughout.
On another terrific shift, Huberdeau continued to take over. Off a Bennett pass, he somehow managed to drive the net and do a spin-a-rama. Instead of shooting, he made a brilliant turnaround pass for an easy Tippett tap in for his first postseason goal at 4:04. The degree of difficulty on that play was mesmerizing. Huberdeau has always been overlooked due to where he plays. Barkov gets most of the ink. I don’t think anyone can call Huberdeau underrated anymore. He had a goal and two assists.
Over a minute later, another dust-up happened when Cirelli got into it with Mason Marchment. The son of former NHL defenseman Bryan Marchment, gave as good as he got from Cirelli. Both got coincidental roughing minors. That meant more four-on-four play. As good as the first three games of the playoffs were with them each needing overtime to decide, this was by far the best. That’s how competitive it was. Nobody refused to finish a check. Both teams combined for 90 hits led by the Panthers, 54-36. Radko Gudas led everyone with 11. He’s the kind of physical defenseman that you want on your side in such battles. The game was so hard fought that shots slightly favored Tampa 40-39 and face-offs were 38-35, Lightning. Total attempts were dead even at 64 apiece.
For over half a period, the Panthers played winning hockey. They avoided bad penalties and played the Lightning at even strength. They got to their defense and escalated the physicality like the first. However, an unnecessary second minor penalty from Bennett changed the game. Perhaps seeking retribution for an uncalled interference on Barkov where he got leveled, Bennett charged Coleman from behind into the boards. It was an obvious one. As effective a player as the throwback player is with his old school Lanny McDonald mustache, it was the kind of mistake you can’t make in such a game.
Handed another power play, it didn’t take long for the lethal Lightning unit to strike. Forty-one seconds in, Kucherov took a Hedman feed and faked shot to draw an overplaying Bobrovsky. He over committed so badly that once Kucherov passed over for an open Point in the slot, the shot was a gimme into an open net to tie the score with exactly seven minutes left. On all three Tampa power play goals, the Panthers did a poor job of getting in lanes. They didn’t take them away. It was way too easy for the Bolts.
With the game again tied, neither side sat back. Instead, they each went for it. There were a couple of Florida hiccups in their end that only a sharp Bobrovsky was able to cover up. He made a lot of good saves. So did Vasilevskiy, who stayed calm under pressure in crunch time.
A missed high stick on Alex Wennberg would prove pivotal late in regulation. The attacking center appeared to get knocked down by an errant Tampa stick. No call. Moments later, McDonagh somehow found Point behind the Florida D for a breakaway. The clutch performer took his time before going to a backhand deke five-hole on Bobrovsky to give the Lightning a 5-4 lead with 74 seconds remaining. It was the kind of superb goal he scored during last year’s Cup run. That’s the kind of impact player Point is.
With Bobrovsky off for an extra attacker, the Cats did get off a last second shot. However it missed the mark and a wide rebound came after the buzzer. That gave the Lightning a 1-0 series lead. It ended a great game that had everything. Scoring. Hitting. Goaltending. Momentum swings. Emotions. What a battle it was. I can’t wait for Game Two.
While the previous three postseason games all required sudden death, none were as insane as Tampa/Florida. On Saturday, a T.J. Oshie shot was redirected by Nic Dowd through Tuukka Rask to give the Capitals a 1-0 series lead on the Bruins. A game where veteran Craig Anderson was needed to replace injured starter Vitek Vanecek. He wasn’t perfect allowing several rebounds, but Anderson did a good job to get the Caps the win over a good Bruins team, who didn’t get much out of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Game Two is coming up.
On Sunday afternoon, Kyle Palmieri played the OT hero when after using his strength to bowl over Mike Matheson, he found a Jean-Gabriel Pageau pass and elevated it by a shaky Tristan Jarry high, short side for the winner in an Islanders’ 4-3 overtime win over the Penguins. Palmieri matched his output post trade deadline with a pair on Jarry. Pageau did what he does picking up three points (1-2-3). Oliver Wahlstrom had a helper and Brock Nelson scored. Every goal went high glove. Sidney Crosby scored as did Kasperi Kapanen to answer a Nelson third period goal 31 seconds later that forced extras. Ilya Sorokin picked up the win in place of injured starter Semyon Varlamov.
In a superlative performance, Cam Talbot made 42 saves to outduel a brilliant Marc-Andre Fleury who made 29 stops on 30 shots, giving the Wild a 1-0 win in overtime over the Golden Knights. Joel Eriksson-Ek won it on a broken play. The puck went off Marcus Foligno right to Eriksson-Ek, whose quick shot went blocker side to beat Fleury a few minutes into sudden death. Even though Talbot made 13 more saves, Fleury made several remarkable glove saves that were highlight reel. The future Hall Of Famer isn’t the reason his team lost. We’ll see how Vegas responds to some adversity.
There will be three more playoff games on Monday evening. You’ll have Game Two between Boston and Washington. Plus the start of the Predators and Hurricanes getting underway. The late game features the Blues at the Avalanche. It’s unfortunate that there’s no fourth game. Due to the ridiculousness of the NHL schedule forcing the Canucks and Flames to make up the rest of their games, they’re still playing.
That means no North Division playoffs until later this week for Canadiens versus Maple Leafs and Jets against Oilers. It makes no sense. How many fans tuned into Calgary’s 6-5 overtime win over the Canucks in last night’s night cap? You have to be pretty diehard. My Carolina/Blackhawks Twitter friend told me Elias Lindholm got the winner. Technically, you had four games go to overtime this weekend. All five were decided by a goal. Hopefully, that trend continues.
A final thought. Seeing how in all these games the face-offs, hitting and shots were very important, I sure hope Rangers brass are paying close attention. Especially to the physicality and intense battles during and after whistles. That it factor is what’s lacking. Whoever they hire must address the unwillingness of the top stars to play that tenacious style. Hint: 10 and 93.