Playoff intensity expected when Lightning meet Panthers

NHL Hockey

The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will finish their quick two-game set on Saturday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., bringing what feels like an abrupt end to some budding drama.

The Lightning came back twice from a one-goal deficit against their intrastate rival before defenseman Victor Hedman tallied on a breakaway 54 seconds into overtime to give Tampa Bay the victory.

The Lightning struggled during much of the 3-2 victory, yet the defending champions found a way to win anyway.

The Panthers outshot the Lightning 38-19 overall and led 1-0 and 2-1 behind goals from Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair, but Tampa Bay found a way to bounce back at critical moments.

Standing near the far post, rookie Ross Colton made a huge play when he shoveled in the tying tally from Mikhail Sergachev at the midway point of the third period.

His eighth goal in just 17 games since being called up from AHL affiliate Syracuse gave the Lightning life and, according to Hedman, is what the team has come to expect from the first-year player.

“That was huge, especially with the way things are going,” Hedman said. “When you go down 2-1, it’s easy to fall back into that. Ross has been a difference-maker ever since he’s been called up. He competes hard every night.”

Hard-nosed competition has been a trademark of the play between the two Central Division teams who – along with the Carolina Hurricanes — have found themselves in the top three of the standings for almost the entire campaign.

The Hurricanes and Lightning are tied for first place with 60 points, while only one point separates the pair from the Panthers. Fourth-place Nashville is 10 points behind Florida, having played one more game than the Panthers.

The scenario almost assuredly means two of the three teams — Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida — will square off in an opening-round playoff series.

“You’re down 2-1 in a big-time game (between) two pretty good hockey teams, and you find a way to tie it and win it in overtime,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I really liked our attitude on the bench. The boys dug their heels in and pulled one out.

“It should be something we easily build on for Saturday.”

In notching his first game-winning goal this season and 18th of his career, Hedman tied Pavel Kubina for the most by a defenseman in franchise history.

Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said playing a rival and potential playoff opponent ramps up the intensity.

“It just seems to bring that type of emotion to the game,” said Quenneville, whose Panthers are 1-3-1 on their road trip and 2-2-1 against Tampa Bay. “We welcome the challenge. This trip has been a great test of five games.”

Prior to the game, Tampa Bay announced that star forward Steven Stamkos (lower body) was placed on long-term injured reserve retroactive to April 9.

Stamkos, 31, was hurt on a non-contact play in Columbus in Tampa Bay’s 6-4 win over the Blue Jackets to close out that series last Thursday.

A two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner honoring the NHL’s top goal scorer, the Lightning captain is tied with Brayden Point for the team lead in goals with 17.

Trade deadline acquisitions Brandon Montour, Nikita Gusev and Lucas Wallmark made their Florida debuts Thursday. None registered a point, but the 27-year-old defenseman Montour — obtained from Buffalo — posted a plus-2 with a hit and a blocked shot in 18 minutes of action.

–Field Level Media

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