As the final seconds of their season opener at Amalie Arena ticked down, two things became apparent watching the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night. First of all, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as the starter, showed the poise of a long-time veteran. Second of all, depth scoring shone in a big way as a new line helped lead the Bolts to victory.
Vasilevskiy turned aside 33 of 36 shots while the line of Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, and Brayden Point got behind the wheel and drove the Lightning to a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers in the season opener for both teams.
Point finished the night with a goal and two assists, while Palat added a pair of goals, including the team’s first of the season. Gourde didn’t make it onto the scoresheet, but he was buzzing around the ice the entire time. Not only was it apparent to the fans and media how good this line was, but their teammates and coaches recognized it as well.
“They were fantastic. That line carried us,” said Bolts captain Steven Stamkos.
“They were our best line,” said head coach Jon Cooper. “Playing against an exceptional line all night. They carried us tonight.”
It didn’t take the Lightning long to jump out to the lead, as Palat scored off a rush by backhanding a shot past Roberto Luongo at the 6:33 mark of the opening period. Palat tried to feather a pass to Point, but it bounced off a Panthers defender and back onto his stick. His backhand shot squeezed by Luongo to send the sellout crowd at Amalie Arena into a frenzy. Just 25 seconds into the second period, Point upped the lead to 2-0 when Palat put the puck in front of the net and it bounced off a Keith Yandle’s stick. The puck caromed down low along the goal line to Point, who fired it home from a tough angle past Luongo.
Although the Lightning jumped out to a 2-0 lead, it didn’t feel like a safe lead. They didn’t generate much sustained pressure or many shots on goal.
In fact, Tampa Bay tallied just nine shots on goal by the halfway point of the second period. Their scoring had been timely, but Vasilevskiy’s play kept them in the game during that time. Throughout the contest, his ability to track the puck through traffic and put himself in position to stop deflections and tip-ins, as well as the easy shots, was fantastic. He was in control the entire time. However, it wasn’t enough to keep the Panthers from rallying.
Connor Brickley got the Panthers on the board, cutting the Lightning lead to 2-1 at 12:21 of the second period. Vincent Trocheck bumped into Nikita Kucherov, forcing a turnover even though it looked like it might have been a trip. Alex Petrovic picked up the puck, skated in, and dished it past a sprawling Dan Girardi to a wide open Brickley for the easy tap-in. Florida tied it up with 2:13 left in the period when Mark Pysyk knocked home a rebound following a goalmouth scramble that saw a lot of Bolts players standing around.
When asked about the lull his team got into during the game’s 30 minutes, Cooper didn’t beat around the bush.
“You could borderline say I’m not so sure when we had that 2-0 lead that we deserved to have that 2-0 lead. The problem is we weren’t shooting pucks,” said Cooper. “It sounds like a broken record with me at times. When we started to shoot, things happened for us.”
Late in the second period, Florida’s Aaron Ekblad took a slashing penalty, one of six called on the night. The Lightning carried over 1:41 worth of power play time into the third period.
Vlad Namestnikov put the Lightning up for good when he notched a goal with the man advantage just 59 seconds into the final period, capping off a gorgeous tic tac toe passing play with Stamkos and Alex Killorn and putting the Lightning up 3-2. Nikita Kucherov scored his first of the season to make it 4-2 when he picked up a loose puck in the slot and rifled a shot past Luongo for an unassisted goal.
The whole sequence began with a great breakout pass by rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who found Stamkos streaking down the ice, who promptly fed it to Kucherov. Kucherov skated down the right wing, cut to the middle, and fired a shot that was blocked. After pin-balling around, the puck came back to Kucherov, whose shot didn’t have a chance of being stopped by Luongo.
However, Florida wasn’t done, closing the gap to 4-3 on a goal off a deflection by Jonathan Huberdeau in front. The Panthers pressed the action the rest of the way, but found themselves unable to solve Vasilevskiy, who came up with multiple solid saves. Most notable was a kick save on Evgeni Dadonov after the Panther forward got behind the Lightning defense. Palat tacked on an empty net goal with 13 seconds left, and Cooper was left to praise his goalie after the game.
“He was composed,” said Cooper. “The more you watch him play, you just get that feeling that he’s going to be hard to score on when he’s confident. He was looking like that in the preaseason and he definitely carried that into tonight.”
The Lightning and Panthers will be back at it Saturday night when they meet up at the BB&T Center in Sunrise for a 7 pm puck drop.
The Panthers outshot the Lightning 36-25. Sergachev played 16:03 in his first regular season game with the Lightning, finishing plus-1 and tying Kucherov for the team lead with four shots on goal. Anton Stralman finished plus-4. Stamkos played 18:14 in his first regular season action since last November, finishing with two shots on goal and one assist. Of the seven minor penalties in the game, one was for hooking and the rest were for slashing. The Lightning killed off all four Panther power plays they faced. This was the Lightning’s fourth straight win in a season opener.
My Three Stars of the Game
1st Star – Brayden Point: One goal and two assists, plus-2
2nd Star – Andrei Vasilevskiy: 33 saves
3rd Star – Ondrej Palat: Two goals and a plus-2