Panthers visit Lightning as battle for Central title heats up

NHL Hockey

The Florida Panthers visit the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday as the two teams continue the battle for the Central Division title.

Florida and Tampa Bay are tied with the Carolina Hurricanes atop the division. All three have 58 points, although the Panthers have played 43 games, the Lightning 42 games and the Hurricanes 41 games.

The Panthers, who will wrap their six-game road trip with two games at Tampa Bay, are coming off a 3-2 overtime win at Dallas on Tuesday. The result snapped Florida’s three-game losing streak.

The Lightning fell 7-2 against the host Nashville Predators on Tuesday, their third defeat in the past five games.

Florida and Tampa Bay have split the first four contests of their eight-game season series. The Lightning visit the Panthers for the final two-game set of the regular season on May 8 and May 10.

Tampa Bay is likely to start Andrei Vasilevskiy in net Thursday after backup Curtis McElhinney was left out to dry in Nashville.

Vasilevskiy is 1-1-0 with a 2.55 goals-against average against the Panthers this season, having allowed five goals on 62 shots faced.

The Lightning didn’t blame McElhinney for Tuesday’s lopsided defeat, but rather themselves. The margin of defeat was Tampa Bay’s worst of the season and the seven goals allowed were the team’s high in 2021.

“There was only one team playing tonight,” Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “They were quicker than us and more detailed in their structure. That was one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a Lightning uniform by our group. …

“Tough effort in front of McElhinney there. Feel bad for the big guy.”

When the Panthers looked listless in a 4-1 loss at Dallas on Saturday, Florida coach Joel Quenneville called it a “garbage-can game” and said he wasn’t looking too deep into it.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper had a similar thought following his club’s lopsided Thursday defeat: Just move on.

“Grab one of the pages and turn it. That’s how you do it,” Cooper said. “We’re going to be OK. We’ve just got to move on from this. Often, when you stumble like this, and a lot of mental mistakes is what it was, sometimes it flips on the urgency switch. Hopefully that switch gets flipped on (Thursday).”

The Panthers were able to bounce back Tuesday due in part to a solid effort from goalie Chris Driedger. He kept Florida in the game with 11 third-period saves, including one on which the puck nearly crept over the line.

“A miraculous save by the thinnest of margins,” Quenneville said. “(Driedger) has been coming up with some really good performances here, and the guys are happy for him. It was a hard-fought game for us.”

Driedger is expected to start again Thursday. He is 1-0-0 with a 4.02 GAA against the Lightning this season, having yielded four goals on 31 shots.

Florida beat the Stars with 1:51 left in overtime Tuesday on another game-winning goal from Frank Vatrano. He became the third player in team history, joining Olli Jokinen and Mike Hoffman, to have three OT goals in a single season.

“I love scoring goals,” said Vatrano, who has 14 this season. “It’s nice to been put in some of those opportunities sometimes, it’s just luck of the draw with me putting them in at the right times right now. I’ll take them when I can get them.”

The Panthers are also expected to get some of their newly acquired players in the lineup Thursday including defenseman Brandon Montour (trade with the Buffalo Sabres), winger Nikita Gusev (free agent formerly with the New Jersey Devils) and forward Lucas Wallmark (trade with Chicago Blackhawks).

Florida announced Tuesday that forward Carter Verhaeghe, who is second on the team with 17 goals, would be out at least a week with an upper-body injury. Quenneville said the team wants him healthy for the final games before the playoffs.

–Field Level Media

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