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The Tampa Bay Lightning are set to return to their home ice on Thursday night in their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series, and they will bring with them a hard-earned 2-0 series lead over the Florida Panthers.
Tampa Bay rallied to win the opener 5-4 and won 3-1 on Tuesday in a close game that included an empty-net goal.
This is the seventh time in history that the Lightning have earned a 2-0 series lead. On those previous six occasions, Tampa Bay has advanced every time.
Even so, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos remains cautious.
“This series is not over,” Stamkos said. “(The Panthers) are not quitting. We’re expecting their best in Game 3.”
The Panthers are anticipating a boost on Thursday as they will be able to put forward Sam Bennett back in the lineup. Bennett, who had two assists in the series opener, was suspended for Game 2 for boarding Blake Coleman.
Otherwise, the Panthers need to be better on the power play, where they are just 1-for-6 with one short-handed goal allowed in the first two games of the series. Tampa Bay is 3-for-7 on its power play.
Another trend is that the Panthers have fallen behind in each of the two games: 1-0 in the first and 2-0 in the second.
One positive for the Panthers is the play of rookies such as Owen Tippett and Mason Marchment, each of whom has one goal in this series. In addition, goalie Chris Driedger got the surprise start on Tuesday and allowed just two goals, including one that bounced in off his teammate Anton Stralman.
But a concern for the Panthers is that the veterans who are supposed to carry them have perhaps not done enough to vanquish the Stanley Cup champion Lightning.
Florida’s two biggest stars — Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau — each have one goal and two assists, and emerging standout Carter Verhaeghe has one goal and one assist.
But among the Panthers forwards who have yet to register a point are Anthony Duclair, Alex Wennberg, Patric Hornqvist and Frank Vatrano.
Meanwhile, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who is two years into a seven-year, $70 million contract, was benched after allowing five goals in Sunday’s opener. There is no word yet from Panthers coach Joel Quenneville as to his starting goalie on Thursday.
Even so, Quenneville seemed happy with Driedger’s performance on Tuesday.
“He kept us in the game,” Quenneville said of Driedger. “He gave us a chance. Now we need to turn the momentum around as quickly as possible.”
The Lightning have no issues at goalie. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 32 saves on Tuesday, is 2-0 in this series.
“He’s our rock back there,” Stamkos said.
On the score sheet, the Lightning in this series have been led by Nikita Kucherov (two goals, two assists), Stamkos (one goal, two assists), Brayden Point (two goals, one assist), Victor Hedman (three assists), Ryan McDonagh (two assists) and Ondrej Palat (one goal, one assist).
McDonagh also had a game-high four blocks on Tuesday.
“(McDonagh) is a selfless player who sacrifices his body,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “On our last penalty kill, he was a monster. He’s a Stanley Cup champion for a reason.”
Stamkos indicated there’s a method to how the Lightning have played so far, fighting plenty in the first game and then trying to avoid the penalty box on Tuesday.
“Game 1, you want to set the tone,” Stamkos said. “But once you get deeper in the playoffs, you don’t want to commit dumb penalties. We want to play five-on-five or five-on-four.”
–Field Level Media