Florida seemingly never fares well in the second of back-to-back games so far this season, and tonight's game was no different as the Tampa Bay Lightning smashed the Panthers 6-3 in front of a very happy Tampa crowd. The Panthers looked sluggish for most of the game, punctuating said sluggishness with just enough offense to make everyone think they had a chance to stay in the game. The reality was that the team fans saw against Washington and Winnipeg recently was not present, as the speed, work ethic and overall desire to win was just not apparent. The Panthers could've really used another win as the Washington Capitals topped the Montreal Canadiens in regulation to pull within one point of the Panthers in the division. Florida will have to regroup after this loss and get ready though, as they face Washington on the road on Monday night, and you can be sure the Caps will bring it.
Florida shot themselves in the foot early on in this one, letting up an odd-man rush on netminder Scott Clemmensen to give up another early goal. Nate Thompson would block a Mike Weaver shot and was off to the races, coming in nearly alone on Clemmensen and scoring five-hole, giving the Bolts a goal on their first shot of the game. Tampa kept up the pressure on the Panthers, nearly scoring a couple more times, but fortuitous bounces kept the lead at only one. The Cats finally got a quick rush in off a nice transition play as Kris Versteeg made a nifty behind the back pass to Tomas Fleischmann, who had enough room to rip a wrister past Tampa Bay goalie Mathieu Garon and even it up at one apiece. Both teams started to settle down after the early goals, with Tampa falling back into a more defensive stance (READ: 1-3-1). Florida's speed gave the Bolts trouble at times, but the Lightning often countered with 3-on-2's, so it was quite a back and forth affair for much of the first ten minutes. The teams would trade chances for awhile until the Panthers took the game's first penalty late in the first, as Stephen Weiss would get caught tripping and head to the box. Florida did a great job killing off majority of the penalty, especially Clemmensen, and with 16 second left in the Weiss penalty Steve Downie was called for hooking, creating a short 4-on-4 before the Panthers would get an abbreviated powerplay. The Cats wouldn't score though, and the teams would go into the first intermission tied at one.
Florida started the second in the same fashion as the first, allowing an early goal to the Lightning off a turnover in their own zone. Vincent Lecavalier would pick off a very ill-advised Weiss backhand pass across his own blueline and rip one high past Clemmensen, giving the Bolts the lead back. Both teams went at it for a few more minutes until the next Tampa goal was scored as Marty St. Louis somehow walks out of a crowd in front of the Panther net with the puck and sneaks it past the pad of an outstretched Clemmensen. At this point, the Cats started to turn into the team we're used to seeing on the second of back to back games: tired, worn out and constantly turning the puck over in bad places. The only saving grace for the Panthers was a second goal as the very hot line of Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Mikael Samuelsson managed to beat Garon after a great shift in the Tampa zone. Bergenheim's hard work made that goal happen, but Sammy made sure he didn't miss either. After Florida tied it up, there was a lot of dumping and chasing by both teams, and both started to play a bit more carefully. Tampa continued to mostly outwork the Panthers though, and eventually it paid off as a tired top line for the Panthers couldn't clear the zone and Steven Stamkos scored the fourth Lightning goal of the evening. That woke Florida up a bit, and they had a few decent shifts in the Tampa zone, but couldn't beat Garon, and then promptly gave up another odd-man rush to the Bolts. Lecavalier found St. Louis for his second of the night as the Panthers had three players down below the Tampa goal line and couldn't get back in time. After this one, head coach Kevin Dineen pulled Clemmensen, likely not due to Clemmer's play but more to motivate the guys in front of him, who were just sloppy during the second period up to this point. That meant rookie Brian Foster got his first NHL action on his birthday, although not in the most favorable of circumstances. Luckily the Lightning wouldn't score again in the second, but the Panthers would as Bergenheim put in his ninth of the year late in the period, cutting the Lightning lead to two heading into the third.
The Panthers came up with a bit more jump to start the third, and drew a penalty about four minutes into the period as Victor Hedman went to the box for tripping. Florida wasn't able to beat Garon though, and the Bolts were able to kill off the man advantage and then generate some offense off a few good shifts in the Panthers zone. The Bolts would go on the powerplay not much later as Bergenheim took yet another penalty, this time for hooking, and it gave the Lightning a chance to widen the lead. However, Foster and the Panthers fought back and killed it off. Tampa would control much of the play in the third after the Bergenheim penalty, keeping Florida on the outside perimeter and not giving up any quality scoring chances. In fact, the Bolts managed to limit the Panthers to only six shots in the period, their lowest total of the night for any period. Clemmensen would come back into the game for Florida but it wouldn't matter as the Panthers weren't able to score at all, and then had to pull Clemmer late in the game to even up 5-on-5 after Versteeg was called for tripping. The Bolts would pop in an empty netter as St. Louis would get his third of the night, and that would be the final nail in the coffin as Tampa Bay would win 6-3.
- Sure, this was a loss to a division rival who is below Florida in the standings by a good margin. No big deal, right? WRONG. The Capitals won against the Habs today, bringing them to within one of the Panthers after this loss, and Tampa is 6-3-1 in their last ten games and are surging. They're only eight points back of the Panthers now and these losses to them could really haunt Florida later in the season.
- Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Blind passes up the middle, weak zone clears up the middle, delaying at the defensive blueline to try and make a play... all very bad things. What else can you say about these back-to-back games for the Panthers? They look like a completely different team in the second game, and this time travel can't be used as an excuse. Dineen and his coaching staff really have to find a way to get this team to wake up for these games as they look like they're skating in mud.
- Keaton Ellerby and Tyson Strachan look pretty comfortable as a defensive pairing. Ellerby was throwing some huge hits in this game and that's what the Cats really need from him. If he and Erik Gudbranson could show their nasty sides more often in every game, you'd see a lot more forwards dodging hits rather than setting up goals.
- Can't really blame Clemmensen for this one. There's a chance he could've had the first goal, and the Stamkos goal was a bit of a misplay, but otherwise he had little to no help from the guys in front of him on the other goals. The forwards were again just scrambling around after the puck instead of manning up and tying up sticks.
- Congrats to Foster, who finished the night with a 1.000 save percentage. On one shot.
- The Panthers top line? A combined -6. The Panthers top defensive pairing of Brian Campbell and Gudbranson? An ugly -5. There's something to be said about creating offense, but when you're not playing both ends of the ice well, offense has to take a little bit of a back seat. Remember at the beginning of the season, about 20-25 games in? Weiss, Fleischmann and Versteeg were all in the top 25 in the NHL in +/-. Now, not a single one of them is there, and Weiss is the best with a +11, tied for 57th best in the league. Something's gotta change.
- The first goal by St. Louis reminded me of one of those cartoons where a bunch of dogs get into a big fight, and then all of the sudden the smallest dog emerges with a juicy steak and sneaks away. That was pretty much how it went, minus the juicy steak.
- The Bergie-Sammy-Gocula line is scoring at a regular clip now. If the top line keeps scoring (while playing some actual defense) and the second line keeps it up, Florida has two decent scoring lines. Haven't been able to say that much this season.
- Lecavalier had a fantastic game. He's just a Panther killer. One goal, three assists and a couple good defensive plays.
- What am I drinking, you ask? Why, it's a Caipirinha, comprised of a whole lime and 1.5 tablespoons of granulated Sugar in the Raw, muddled thoroughly at the bottom of a highball glass, and then doused in 3 oz. of Leblon cachca rum. Drop in some crushed ice, stir thoroughly, and feel enlightened. Or drunk. Whichever comes first.