The subplots are growing for the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning as they get set for the middle of three straight games against each other.
Florida won a home game on Thursday, beating the Lightning 5-2 at Sunrise, Fla. Saturday night’s game is also set for Sunrise, and the teams will conclude the series Monday in Tampa Bay.
As for those story lines, consider subplot No. 1: Lightning center and team captain Steven Stamkos, who missed Thursday’s game due to a lower-body injury, is questionable for Saturday’s game.
Stamkos, a six-time All-Star, leads Tampa Bay with seven goals. The Lightning are already without Nikita Kucherov, who is gone for the year due to a hip injury. Kucherov led the Lightning last season in goals (33) and assists (52), which means the Lightning can ill afford Stamkos’ extended absence.
Subplot No. 2: Speedy Panthers winger Anthony Duclair missed Thursday’s game and is questionable for Saturday due to COVID-19 protocol. New to the team this year, Duclair has yet to score a goal, but he leads the Panthers in even-strength assists with six.
Subplot No. 3: Lightning center Anthony Cirelli left Thursday’s game due to an injury sustained with 8:34 left in the third period. “It didn’t look good when he came off,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Subplot No. 4: After Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky started on Thursday, the Lightning (Curtis McElhinney) and the Panthers (Chris Driedger) could go with their backup goalies on Saturday. McElhinney is 1-0 with a .958 save percentage and a 1.00 goals-against average in his only appearance this season. Driedger is 3-1-1 with a .937 SP and a 1.97 GAA.
Beyond all that, the Lightning — the reigning Stanley Cup champions — lead the Central Division with 19 points. The Panthers, who broke Tampa Bay’s six-game winning streak on Thursday, are second with 18 points and have a game in hand.
“We’re excited about meeting a big challenge,” said Joel Quenneville, who won three Stanley Cup titles with the Chicago Blackhawks and is in his second year with the Panthers, who have never won a championship. “The next game is going to be an even bigger challenge.”
Quenneville said he was pleased with the “excitement on the bench” as his players rose to the occasion.
The beauty of Florida’s performance on Thursday was that the workload was spread out among many players. The Panthers got goals from Frank Vatrano, Alex Wennberg, Aaron Ekblad, Carter Verhaeghe and Brett Connolly (empty-netter).
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau — the Panthers’ two best players — were each held to one assist, and it was still enough.
Duclair, who had been on the top line with Barkov and Verhaeghe, was replaced by Connolly, and still the Panthers kept going in what has become the second-best start in franchise history through 11 games (8-1-2).
Bobrovsky (5-0-1), who has yet to lose in regulation this season, is off to the best start ever by a Panthers goalie. Bobrovsky had such good support in front of him on Thursday that he didn’t have do that much — just 19 saves.
“We need to play hard-nose hockey,” Vatrano said, “and we did that for a full 60.”
Tampa Bay was led by Brayden Point, who scored twice, both on power plays, and Victor Hedman, who added two assists.
Point had plenty of praise for the upstart Panthers, saying, “They exposed us with their speed. That’s a great team over there. We have to be ready for the next one. We have to try to counter their speed and come ready to play.”
–Field Level Media