BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
There are certain games that you can almost feel like you can anticipate and predict the outcome before you get to the venue and Saturday Night when the Florida Panthers hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center, was one of those.
On Friday Night, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Lightning lost a 5-2 home decision to the Dallas Stars. The Stars win kept their playoff hopes alive.
The Lightning owned all the tiebreakers with the Panthers that if they could defeat Florida, they would clinch the second spot in the Central Division and earn home ice advantage in the first round.
A Tampa win would also allow the Lightning to rest their regular players and utilize others from there American Hockey League Club, the Syracuse Crunch.
Entering the contest, Florida’s three wins versus Tampa have been recorded during regulation, marking the first time the club has registered three regular season wins against their intrastate rival since 2015-16.
Furthermore, the Panthers owned an 18-5-3 record on home ice this season and Florida has posted an 11-2 mark over their last 13 games at the BB&T Center.
You talk about scoring depth, Florida has it. The Panthers are the first team in the NHL to have eight players score at least 10 goals this season: Going into the game, Aleksander Barkov (26), Jonathan Huberdeau (19), Frank Vatrano (18), Carter Verhaeghe (17), Patric Hornqvist (14), Alexander Wennberg (13), Aaron Ekblad (11) and Anthony Duclair (10).
The first period went exactly as I expected.
Both teams were feeling each other out and there was only one penalty called at the 4:35 mark on Florida’s Ryan Lomberg for hooking.
Florida held a 1-0 lead at the end of the opening frame on a goal by Wennberg.
Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak committed a penalty at the 17:39 mark in the second period and the Panthers capitalized by scoring a power play goal at the 16:53 mark by Sam Bennett. Florida led 2-0.
The Lightning added an even strength goal at 15:08 to trim the deficit to 2-1 when Luke Scheen lit the lamp.
But the fun started at 13:43 of the second period when Lomberg was assessed a two minute instigating penalty, against Scheen that led to five for fighting and a 10 minute misconduct. Scheen got a five minute penalty for fighting. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the power play.
Wennberg scored his second goal of the game giving Florida a 3-1 lead off a wraparound.
By this time, tensions were getting much higher!
When Huberdeau scored off a backhand at 5:07 in the period and gave Florida a 4-1 lead, you could sense a feel in the building that Florida smelled the kill.
The wider the lead, tempers were boiling over and Tampa Bay became increasingly frustrated looking for scrums anyway they could find them.
Wennberg would have a hat trick and his goal total reached 16 for the season.
I created my own version of the Gordie Howe Hat Trick in this game as the only statistics that mattered were Hits, Penalty Minutes and the Final Score.
1. There were 73 total hits, Florida had 38 and Tampa Bay had 35.
2. There were 154 penalty minutes, Tampa Bay had 78, Florida had 76.
3. Florida defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1.
I rarely ever talk about individual penalty minutes numbers but in this case, I will.
Lomberg led the way with 29, Brandon Montour had 14 and Bennett had 12 for the Panthers.
Scheen led Tampa Bay with 17 and three players amassed 12.
Florida’s power play was less than spectacular going 1-7.
The Panthers out shot Tampa Bay 35-28 in the game.
The win improved Florida’s record to 36-14-5 for 77 points, while the Lightning’s loss dropped them to 36-16-3 with 75 points. All Florida needs is one point on Monday Night to secure the second spot and home ice advantage in the opening round.
Both teams have now played 55 games.
In a 56 game regular season on Fan Appreciation Night, “Monday Night Matters.”
When the game was over, Coach Joel Quenneville knew his team was in for a battle.
“I think both teams know we’re going to be facing one another. I still think there’s something at stake so you’ve got to be smart about how you’re playing. Sometimes, it went back to old time hockey but I thought we did a good job of staying together and doing what we had to do.”
The Coach had high praise for Wennberg’s performance.
“I’m very pleased with his effort, his game. The production part is really kind of the bonus plan with him because he’s reliable defensively, he’s always in the right play. You’re comfortable with him knowing that you’re getting offense and defense.”
Huberdeau, scored his 20th goal of the season, marking his fourth straight season with at least 20 goals. He wasn’t surprised at what the Lightning threw at the Panthers.
“Tonight we just came in and wanted to play our game and win the game. I think that gives us the possibility to finish in second place and get the home advantage, so that’s what we’re focusing on. It was physical, we don’t mind that. It was a good game, intense game. That’s how it’s going to be along the way. They’re a good team and they can play physical so we’ve just got to match that.
“It was a little chippy tonight but everybody’s in the same boat. We want to win, and that’s how we play as a team. It showed tonight what kind of a team we are.”
Wennberg was awarded the game’s top star because of his hat trick.
The forward said, “it was a really tough game. We both want to win. There’s a good chance here that you rough people up a little bit, get some intensity. As you can see, there was a lot of fights a lot of energy. It’s playoffs coming up so it’s a great game to play out there.”
Wennberg had strong praise for the opponent.
“Tampa Bay is a really tough team to play against, but I feel like the way they play the game, if we play our style, it’s going to get rewarded. I’ve played against them before and I am excited to do it again.”
The win improved Sergei Bobrovsky’s record to 19-8-2 and he stopped 28 of 29 shots fired by the Lightning.
He added, “We had a good crowd behind us, it was a great atmosphere. We’re going to see those guys (Tampa Bay) a lot. I loved everything about tonight’s game. Overall, I think it’s a very solid game, and it’s a great team win.”
The announced sellout crowd because of Covid-19 was 5,040.
You can rest assure if the energy was high on Saturday Night what it will be like on Monday Night at 7 PM at the BB&T Center.
My gut feeling is right about 95% of the time and Saturday Night was no exception!
What will happen on Monday Night?
Will we see another WWE Battle Royal where the penalty boxes are packed and there is no social distancing?
Or will we see a nice clean hockey game in the Battle of I-75 for this intrastate rivalry which will occur in the playoffs for the first time in 27-years?
This one is hard to predict but like the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament where the Semi-Finals are on Saturday and the Finals are Monday Night, it’s an interesting 48 hour buildup worth waiting for.
Nonetheless, whatever happens, there will be at least five more games with these two teams in 2021 with Monday Night’s Finale, plus at least four more, not counting the thought of a series going seven games.
All I can say to South Florida and Tampa Bay Sports Fans, “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” as legendary Boxing Ring Announcer Michael Buffer would echo.
The Panthers are 4-2-1 vs Tampa this season. A fifth win this year will undoubtedly be the biggest.
All four of Florida’s wins have come in regulation time marking the first time since 2010-11 that the Panthers have defeated the Lighting in regulation in one season.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be reached on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
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