Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Florida Panthers 4-1 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series. The Lightning jumped ahead 1-0 against their in-state rivals for the second consecutive postseason.
They played without Brayden Point, who may have been the best player in their first-round playoff series win over Toronto. He has been listed as day-to-day. In his absence, many of his teammates stepped up their play.
Bottom 6 Producing for the Lightning
In the Toronto series, the bottom six forwards were productive for the Lightning, scoring multiple timely goals courtesy of Ross Colton, Corey Perry, and Game 7 hero Nick Paul. On Tuesday night, they got goals from Perry, off an outstanding pass from Nikita Kucherov, and Bellemare. With the loss of Point, it has become even more important that the bottom six forwards continue to play a big role. Perry, in his first season with the Lightning, is no stranger to playoff hockey. He won the Stanley Cup in his first full NHL season with Anaheim and also helped the Stars and Canadiens come close to a championship the past two seasons.
Perry, who also had an assist on Bellemare’s goal, plays a vital role as a nuisance kind of player. He consistently sneaks his way into scoring chances, while annoying opponents with his in-your-face physical play. While not necessarily thought of as a scorer in the twilight of his career, his 19 goals during the regular season were his most since 2016-17. After Kucherov scored the third goal of the night, Colton scored on a power play after Florida unsuccessfully challenged Kucherov’s goal for goaltender interference. The bottom six filled in quite nicely on Tuesday night and will need to continue to contribute in order to negate whatever impact may have been lost from Point’s absence.
The Lightning Excelled on Special Teams
The Lightning scored three of their four goals on the power play. Their first of these came when Kucherov sent a highlight-reel pass to Perry, who buried the puck into a wide-open net. After being under the weather and looking a bit sluggish in Game 7 vs Toronto, Kucherov had a huge impact on the outcome of Tuesday night’s contest. He then fired a wrister in the net, a goal that was challenged by the Panthers, claiming that Anthony Cirelli interfered with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The challenge was denied and they were given a minor penalty for it. Colton scored on the ensuing power play, making the Lightning 3-for-6 on the night. More importantly, they were able to have some success without Point, their power play “bumper”.
The Panthers went 0 for 18 on the power play in their series win against the Capitals, and they were also unable to score on their three chances in Game 1. The Lightning did a very good job of taking away passing lanes, clogging the front of the net, and giving up their bodies to block shots. One of those blocked shots in the second period seemed to injure Eric Cernak, who left the game and did not return. By only allowing the three chances, they avoided some of the unnecessary penalties they took in the Toronto series.
The “Big Cat” Shuts Down the Cats
Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to be dialed in for the Lightning. Over his last three games, all of them wins, he has stopped 94 of 99 shots. On Tuesday night he made 33 saves, including an important stop off Claude Giroux on a rush inside the final six minutes. Game 1 of this series was certainly a much better start, after struggling against the Maple Leafs in the first round. His numbers against the Leafs included a mundane .897 save percentage (SV%) and 3.04 goals-against average (GAA). However, based on his last three games, it looks like “The Big Cat” is back to the postseason form that he demonstrated the past couple of seasons.
The Lightning will continue to need these kinds of performances from Vasilevskiy, who has not had a great deal of success against the Panthers. Since the beginning of the 2020-21 season, he has a 3.00 GAA and a .914 SV% against them. It certainly helps when the defense continues to take away shooting lanes and keep players from taking away his eyes in front of the net. This might be one of the most, if not the most key ingredient to winning the series for the Panthers.
The Lightning return to Sunrise and FLA Live Arena on Thursday for Game 2 of the series.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)