Lightning fall to Panthers for first home loss

By Eduardo A. Encina
Tampa Bay Times/TNS

TAMPA, Fla. - The Lightning have gotten to know the Panthers very well over the past week.

Three straight meetings against their cross-state rivals proved what they expected: the revamped Panthers will be a tough foe in the Central Division.

They’re fast - they’re not only quick skaters, but they move the puck up the ice in a flash - and don’t resemble the same team the Lightning have outmatched in recent seasons.

The Panthers took advantage of some early Tampa Bay turnovers, then put on a show with their speed in a 6-4 Lightning loss.

The Lightning (10-3-1) dropped two games in their three-game series with the Panthers, and Monday’s loss was Tampa Bay’s first loss at Amalie Arena in seven home games this season.

The teams combined for seven goals in the second period, including four Florida scores.

Lightning backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney did not have his best night - and he didn’t help himself on Florida’s first goal - but several Lightning turnovers gave the Panthers far too many rushes on the net.

The Panthers’ first three goals were a result of Tampa Bay turnovers.

With the Lightning up 1-0, McElhinney tried to play the puck behind the net, but Patric Hornqvist beat him to it, then gifted a wide-open net for Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau.

Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta then lost the puck against the boards in the defensive zone, leading to a 2-on-1 that ended with Owen Tippett beating McElhinney. And the Panthers went up 3-1 after Frank Vatrano converted on a penalty shot following a desperation tripping call on Luke Schenn after a Mikhail Sergachev turnover.

Panthers forward Anthony Duclair then streaked through the left side, hitting another gear as he wrapped around the net and beat McElhinney on the far side. Aleksander Barkov also scored a a breakaway, taking the puck north of the left circle, sweeping across the slot and beating McElhinney inside the near post.

It was the Lightning’s fourth line that kept Tampa Bay in the game in the second period. Alex Volkov scored on a rush from the left circle, then cleaned up a centering pass in front of the net from Gemel Smith. Volkov who scored his first career NHL goal on Friday night, now has three goals in his last two games.

The Lightning seemed content getting into a foot race with the Panthers, and the back-and-forth on open ice in the second period ended with Tyler Johnson’s one-timer from the left circle to make the score 5-4.

Steven Stamkos, returning to the lineup after missing the past two games with a lower-body injury and a two-day stint on the COVID-19 protocol list following a false positive test, scored the first goal of the game on a one-timer from the left circle.

Stamkos’ team-high eighth goal of the season came 6:24 into the first period on a feed from Erik Cernak after Ondrej Palat battled for the puck behind the net.

Former Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman gave the Panthers a two-goal cushion 59 seconds into the third, using Cernak as a screen to block McElhinney’s view and put a wrister into the back of the net.

Monday’s game also marked the first game that the Lightning allowed fans back into Amalie Arena. The arena was still largely empty, but a limited capacity crowd of a few hundred “family and friends” watched from the lower bowl and the suites.

It’s the first step of the gradual soft opening that the Lightning hopes will lead to opening the arena to about 3,800 fans by the middle of next month.