TAMPA – The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning had the flex of a champion on Saturday afternoon as they jumped to a 2-0 lead just 7:24 into the first period en route to a dominating 6-2 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 4 of the best of seven series.
Tampa Bay stayed aggressive throughout the afternoon in pushing the Florida Panthers to the brink of elimination in taking a 3-1 lead in the series which moves back to Sunrise, Fla., for Game 5 on Monday evening.
“We came here to win a hockey game and we did,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “The power play was outstanding and the penalty killing got the job done. We gamed it out. We have got better in us. We know that.”
Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov had a goal and three assists before he went down at 10:57 after Florida’s Anthony DuClaire slashed the back of his left knee away from the play. He had to be tended to on the ice before leaving as Lightning medical personnel worked on him in the tunnel behind the Lightning bench.
“We have to be better with our emotions and not getting caught up with the antics that are going on in the game,” said Cooper. “We can be more physical. We can be the better hockey team. I like where we are sitting in the series and believe me, we will be bringing it two nights from now.”
Kucherov finished the afternoon with a goal and three assist as his goal was on the power play off a pass from Steven Stamkos at 4:47 into the third period.
At 16:24 in the third, the Panthers’ Patric Hornqvist followed Duclair’s script as he hit Mikhail Sergachev from behind on his right shoulder which knocked Sergachev to the ice and he had to be helped off the ice as well. The referees assessed a slashing penalty and a 10-minute misconduct to Hornqvist which ended his afternoon.
“There’s nothing wrong with tone setting and message sending. That’s part of the game. that’s why we love it. That’s why people come into the stands and they are lined up for tickets. It’s awesome! But let’s do it within the parameters of the game and there’s guys with stripes on control that. If it’s not control then stuff like this happens tonight. You have superstars laying on the ice, hurt.” – Lightning coach Jon Cooper, on the liberties the Panthers took that led to the injuries of Nikita Kucherov and Mikhail Sergachev.
Alex Killorn had two goals and two assists and Anthony Cirelli had a goal and an assist to pace Tampa Bay. Stamkos and Erik Cernak had a pair of assists each as the Lightning pushed the Panthers to the brink of elimination.
Goalie Andrei Vasilveskiy had a solid day between the pipes as he stopped 39 of 41 Panthers shots as Florida had a 35-17 margin in shots on goal after two periods. The Panthers put 47 puck on Vasilevskiy on Thursday.
Tampa Bay had two areas of concern that made for correction after Thursday night’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Panthers.
The Lightning also wanted a quick start and then once they were able to take control of the game, they wanted to close the door and not give Florida any momentum. Coach Jon Cooper, defenseman Victor Hedman and Killorn all pointed to not playing aggressive enough in the third period with the 5-3 lead on Thursday.
Cirelli doubled-down on the quick start as he scored on a breakaway three minutes in for a quick 1-0 Lightning lead as he put the puck through the 5-hole on Panthers starting goalie Alex Bobrovsky, who was once again pulled in favor of Chris Driedger after Killorn’s second marker at 7:41 in the second.
Killorn dug the puck out on the board and threw it forward to Cirelli, whose speed put Bobrovsky at a huge disadvantage.
Yanni Gourde then followed 4:24 later as Tampa Bay took a 2-0 lead as Gourde’s second goal of the playoffs came off of a shot by Nikita Kucherov which he redirected.
Gourde was providing traffic at the net to distort Bobrovsky and the puck bounced in front of the Panthers goal and found it’s way into the net.
Working in front of the net was the order of the day for Tampa Bay as Ondrej Palat tapped in a laser off Cernak’s blade from deep behind the right circle at 16:45 to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead after one. Kucherov got the puck moving off the left side of the ice as he found a waiting Cernak.
The second period was where the Lightning took command as Killorn netted another redirect at 5:41 after the Lightning were able to pass the puck around the perimeter of the Panthers’ penalty killers without any resistance.
Kucherov fired the puck in the direction of Killorn who again tapped it in off the left side of the crease for a 4-1 Lightning lead at 7:41.
Killorn again got into the teeth of the Panthers’ defense in front of Owen Tippett as Stamkos found him for an easy goal and a 5-1 Bolts’ lead.
Jonathan Huberdeau and Carter Verhaeghe had a power play goal each for the Panthers, who haven’t won a playoff series since the 1996 season when they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The franchise is also making it’s first playoff appearance since 1996.