The Florida Panthers were agonizingly close to a celebration Thursday inside Amalie Arena. They came away from an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, feeling like they “were the better team” than the defending Stanley Cup champion in the sudden-death loss. Instead, they had to settle for one point and optimism, but it soon had to turn into urgency. Florida could not afford to leave Tampa without a win.
In the first 10 minutes, Brandon Montour, who made the confident declaration Thursday, scored the opening goal and the Panthers never trailed Saturday on their way to a 5-3 win against the Lightning.
With a dozen games left in the regular season, Florida returns home after taking 3 of 4 possible points from its fiercest rival.
“You take that,” coach Joel Quenneville said, “any day of the week.”
The win vaults the Panthers (28-12-5) back into second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division, one point ahead of Tampa Bay (29-13-2) and one behind the first-place Carolina Hurricanes. All three teams now rank among the top six in the NHL in points.
While Florida plays two games against the Hurricanes next week in Sunrise and closes the regular season with two more against the Lightning next month at the BB&T Center, the Panthers have played two more games than Carolina and one more than Tampa Bay, which elevated the importance of these two games with the Lightning. A devastating loss Thursday, cranked up the importance even more.
Florida outshot Tampa Bay by nearly 20 on Thursday and lost in the sudden-death randomness of overtime. If it wasn’t for star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 36-save gem, the Panthers are would’ve taken the opener of the two-game series.
“You could feel it just in the locker room with all the guys how much this game meant,” Sam Bennett said.
The versatile forward was the latest newcomer to join Florida on Saturday after the Panthers landed him in a trade-deadline deal with the Calgary Flames on Monday.
On Thursday, Montour and winger Nikita Gusev both made their Florida debuts after the Panthers acquired them in the week leading up to the deadline, and they helped rejuvenate Florida. In the first period Saturday, the three newcomers all scored their first points as Panthers and helped build a 3-1 lead.
Bennett was at the center of it all.
Quenneville immediately placed Bennett at center on his second line, in between wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair, and the forward rewarded his coach with a game-changing, tone-setting first period. He logged two assists, three hits and a plus-minus of plus-2 in 5:20, including 1:49 on the penalty kill. When Bennett was on the ice for 5-on-5 action, Florida attempted six shots and allowed only one.
The Panthers took a 1-0 lead with 11:19 left in the first period on a slap shot by Montour and Bennett created the chance when he tracked down a loose puck in front of the net and fired a pass back up to the defenseman at the point. Montour fired a slap shot into traffic and it deflected off Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak to give Florida a 1-0 lead for the second straight game.
Star center Aleksander Barkov doubled the lead with a power-play goal, but Tampa Bay answered just 1:08 later. In the final seconds of the half, the Panthers built a much-needed cushion and Bennett again created the chance.
With the final seconds ticking away in the first, Bennett saw Tyler Johnson getting lazy with the puck and pounced. He threw an open-ice check at the Lightning forward and jarred the puck away. Huberdeau tracked it down, zipped a cross ice pass to Markus Nutivaara at the point, then buried a rebound off the defenseman’s slap shot with 7.8 seconds left in the period. Bennett added a secondary assist to go along with his earlier primary and Florida took a 3-1 lead into the first intermission in front of 3,800.
Winger Frank Vatrano added an insurance goal on a breakaway with 17:34 left in the second and the Panthers ended up needing it. The Lightning scored with 45 seconds left in the second period, then cut Florida’s lead to 4-3 on a goal with 18:07 remaining. The Panthers spent most of the third period clinging to a narrow lead and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky finished off the win with 28 saves on 31 shots before winger Duclair capped the victory with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“That,” Bennett said, “was a lot of fun.”