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‘The two kids were special’: Rookies Lundell, Knight lead Panthers past rival Lightning

·6 min read

Anton Lundell dropped to one knee and windmilled his right arm. The 20-year-old had the crowd of Tampa Bay Lightning fans in misery as the Florida Panthers were pulling away for an early-season win against their in-state rival. Another 20-year-old made sure it held.

With a two-goal lead in hand, Spencer Knight closed out the Lightning for the final 6:41 to give the Panthers a 4-1 win Tuesday in Tampa.

“The two kids,” coach Joel Quenneville said, “were special tonight.”

TAMPA, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 19: Anton Lundell #15 of the Florida Panthers celebrates a goal in the third period during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on October 19, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 19: Anton Lundell #15 of the Florida Panthers celebrates a goal in the third period during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on October 19, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Lundell, playing in his third NHL game, notched his first two NHL points and gave Florida a two-goal cushion late in the third. Knight, making the first start of his first full NHL season, made 30 saves on 31 shots, and stopped all nine he saw on the penalty kill. Together, they helped the Panthers (3-0-0) match the best start in franchise history by besting the two-time defending champion.

The Lightning (2-2-0) commanded the early stages before Knight shut down a 5-on-3 to keep the game scoreless. The Panthers led throughout the second after defenseman Brandon Montour scored on assists from Lundell and forward Sam Reinhart with 13:48 left in the period. Tampa Bay came up with an answer early in the third, but Florida hit right back on a goal by Aleksander Barkov to go ahead for good with 16:20 remaining.

It was a tightly fought, back-and-forth contest worthy of one of the league’s best new rivalries.

Panthers 1, Lightning 0

The Panthers and Lightning have now faced each other a dozen times since May — twice at the end of last regular season, six times in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, thrice in the preseason and now again in the second week of this new season — and nearly every one has delivered on the hype that comes with being touted as one of the NHL’s budding rivalries.

There was a game with more than 150 total penalty minutes in the final week of the 2021-22 NHL season, when Florida blew out Tampa Bay to clinch the season series. There was a one-goal win for the Lightning to start the 2021 Cup playoffs and an overtime win for the Panthers in Game 5 of their first-round series. Even in the preseason earlier this month, Florida and Tampa Bay played a game in Orlando with 10 combined fighting penalties.

“There’s rivalries all over the league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “but I’d be hard-pressed to see one that’s as juicy as this one is.”

After years of lopsided matchups, the in-state battle showdown has everything a great rivalry needs.

Two good teams? Check.

Postseason history? Check.

Bad blood? Check.

Legitimate stakes? Check — even though it’s early in the season.

Florida and Tampa Bay both expect to be among the best teams in the NHL this season, and their battles will have massive implications in a loaded Atlantic Division, where at least one of the Panthers, Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs will have to settle for a wild card. Games between these two don’t just feel big — they are big and 19,092 filled Amalie Arena to watch the first one this year.

Knight was undaunted by the environment in the postseason last year and he was again Tuesday.

Spencer Knight shuts down Lightning

For the first 15 minutes, Tampa Bay controlled the game. The Lightning fired five shots at Knight — including one that flipped over his shoulder and needed to be swept off the goal line by defenseman Radko Gudas — and sent another four wide either on deflections or near misses.

With 4:50 left in the first period, Joe Thornton went to the penalty box for slashing. Twenty-six seconds later, center Anton Lundell went to the box, too. The Panthers, after failing on their only power play in the first period, faced a 5-on-3 for 1:34.

Tampa Bay’s near misses turned into real challenges. Florida cleared the zone twice, then Knight faced a flurry of four shots in 39 seconds and turned them all aside.

In the second period, he made another series of saves to keep the Panthers’ 1-0 lead intact. Tampa Bay had another power play and Steven Stamkos got a breakaway. Knight poked the puck off his stick, then faced another breakaway from Lightning right wing Corey Perry and stopped him, too.

With 25 seconds left in the period, Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh ripped a slap shot from the left point and Knight couldn’t quite save it cleanly. The puck rolled around in the crease while Stamkos dug at the goaltender, but Knight managed to whirl his left arm behind his back and keep it out of harms way. The Panthers held onto a 1-0 lead.

“They have world-class players all over the ice at all times, pretty much,” Knight said. “When you put that much talent together, they’re going to be able to move me around pretty well, put some pressure on, so it’s fun. I enjoy playing against the best and being challenged because anyone can make routine saves from the top of the circles, or with no traffic or anything, right to the chest, but you’ve got to try to face the tough stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.

“That’s why I play goalie. I don’t play goalie just to make chest saves from the top of the circles.”

Panthers respond in third period

Knight finally cracked with 17:24 left when Lightning forward Brayden Point beat him with a slap shot. Barkov, though, needed only 1:04 to answer, scoring on a rebound to put Florida ahead for good.

Knight stopped the final 14 shots he faced while Lundell delivered the dagger, splitting a double team, making a pass to Reinhart and getting it back to beat star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for the third time.

“It was a really good feeling to get that first goal and help the team to win,” Lundell said.

The Panthers didn’t change much from a year ago, but Knight was untested then and Lundell was in Finland.

They — Florida hopes — are what’s different about this group as the chase continues to catch up with Tampa Bay.

“That,” Quenneville said, “was bright for the future of the organization.”

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