The Florida Panthers exploded for four goals in the second period en route to a 5-2 home victory over the defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at the BB&T Center.
The first period would see the two Florida clubs trading off chances. Florida had two power plays during the frame, while Tampa Bay had three, although neither team was able to capitalize on their chances. Both goaltenders were well tested, as Ben Bishop stopped all 11 Panthers' shots and Roberto Luongo stopped 13 Bolt chances.
The opening frame ended with the Panthers leading the Lightning ten hits to four, with Corban Knight and Jussi Jokinen leading the team with a pair each. Derek MacKenzie, as usual, led the team by winning four-of-six faceoffs.
Florida broke the scoreless tie 8:50 into the second after a nifty bit of puck movement for the Cats' first unit. Jonathan Huberdeau earned his eighth goal of the season on Florida's 19th shot of the night, after a give and go between him and Aleksander Barkov. Aaron Ekblad also earned an assist on the play.
At the 12:36 mark, Nick Bjugstad scored Florida's first power-play goal since January 2nd, a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers. For Big Nick (also known as Rotisserie Chicken), it was his ninth goal of the season. Huberdeau got the helper, but most of the unit was as deserving of an assist. The series ended with Bjugs firing the biscuit over a prone Bishop's stick side for a 2-0 lead.
The Panthers blew it wide open at 15:56 on a Reilly Smith wrist shot to make it 3-0. The puck kind of slid off Smith's stick on what should have been a miss, but it came at Bishop so slowly that the big netminder got completely thrown off his rhythm. At first, it appeared that Quinton Howden earned the goal, as he was standing right next to Bishop at the time, but the replay showed that the marker belonged to Smith, courtesy of a deflection off Victor Hedman's skate. The goal was Smith's 15th of the campaign. Five more goals will see him tie his career high, set in Boston in 2013-14.
Florida wasn't finished just yet. At 17:33, Vincent Trocheck made it 4-0 by scoring his 13th goal of the season on an unconventional backhanded knuckler that fluttered over and behind Bishop. Logan Shaw and Jokinen both got helpers on the play, although a case could also be made for Ekblad, whose shot on goal started the rally.
Florida's domination of Tampa Bay wasn't just on the surface, but bone-deep. The Cats had 19 shots on goal to just 5 for the Bolts. The Panthers had generated 21 shots to 12 for the Lightning, and won nine faceoffs to seven for Tampa Bay. The Lightning did outhit the Panthers eight-to-five through the period. Expat Jason Garrison led everyone with two. Jokinen and Bjugstad each went four-for-five in the faceoff circle. Bishop would not return in the third period, ending his night after 40 minutes. After stopping the first 18 shots he faced, he gave up four goals on the final 12. Andrei Vasilevskiy would take the ice after the break.
Tampa Bay finally solved Luongo 5:39 into the final period, after some good puck-cycling which freed up Hedman for his fourth of the season to close the score to 4-1. Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov had assists on the play, which was earned for the Lightning with the man-advantage.
9:30 into the third, Jon Cooper took the uncommon step of pulling the goaltender with over 10 minutes remaining in regulation. The gambit, while brave, did little to faze Luongo, who stopped 20 shots through the frame. Brian Campbell made the Lightning pay at the 15:52 mark with his fourth goal of the season into the empty net. to make it 5-1. Big Nick and Jaromir Jagr earned assists on the play. Jagr's 1,098 career assist leaves him 37 behind fifth place Paul Coffey.
Tampa Bay put Vasilevskiy back into the crease eventually, and actually closed the gap back to three goals with a minute-and-a-half left in the contest on a JT Brown (4) wrist shot, with an assist to Brian Boyle for the 5-2 final.
The Lightning were really throwing the kitchen sink at Luongo, outshooting the Panthers 22-to-5 in the final period, and out-Corsi-ing them 29-to-8. Trocheck won four-of-five faceoffs for the Cats, and Bjugstad won three-of-five.
Volts and Amps
Hedman's goal early in the third ended a 127-minute scoreless streak for Luongo, who currently sports a .930 save percentage, 10 points better than his already above-average career mark.
Big Nick's goal was the 50th of his career, and ties him for 20th on the Panthers' all-time leaderboard with Dave Lowry, Michael Frolik, and Mark Parrish.
Speaking of milestones, Huberdeau's assist was the 101st of his career, and ties him for 12th all-time on Florida's leaderboard, with Dmitry Kulikov.
I'm not sure how to even begin to look it up, but I think this may be the first time that a team that did not make the playoffs in the prior season ever defeated both conference's defending champions in a back-to-back series of games.
Florida is once again five points ahead of second place, shared by Tampa Bay and the Detroit Red Wings.
The Panthers close out their four-game homestand on Tuesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs.