Sergei Bobrovsky (FLA - 72) awaits a faceoff.

Panthers Start Fast, Shade Bolts, 5-3

The shuffle between the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes has been an intriguing watch with no team able to take command in the Central Division. Florida’s 5-3 win on Saturday night over the Tampa Bay Lightning was no different as the Panthers split the two game back-to-back with the Lightning and tied the season series at 3-3-0.

Anthony DuClair scored two goals and Florida opened a three-goal second period before staving off a late Lightning rush in securing the victory.

Tampa Bay was once again without Steven Stamkos, who will miss 10 games after surgery to correct a hip injury.

The Lightning controlled the puck for most of the evening and missed opportunities, but the biggest mistake came last in the second period.

Tampa Bay cut it’s deficit to 2-1 at 13:40 in the first period when Mikhail Sergachev, who tallied an assist in his fourth straight game, fired a shot wide of the net which touched the stick of center Alex Barre-Bouet.  Lightning center Brayden Point tapped in the miss off the left side to cut the decision to 2-1.

However a telling late period goal was trouble for the Lightning.

Panthers defenseman Markus Nutivaara fired off the left side as Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded a blocker save. Florida center Johnathan Huberdeau then collected the puck and scored his 15th goal of the season at 19:52 to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead after one period.

“We turned it over and like we say when you turn it over pucks end up in the net and we got beat back to the net and missed our check,” said Lightning coach John Cooper. “That was a tough one.”

After an unassisted breakaway goal by Vattrano gave the Panthers a 4-1 lead late in the second period, Tampa Bay’s Eric Cernak returned the favor from Huberdeau.

Cernak found the back of the net at 19:15 to peel the lead back to 4-2 after two. Cernak was more involved in the offense and it paid off with Stamkos out of the lineup. Victor Hedman recorded his 400th lifetime helper on the Cernak goal.

“I think you can’t step away from your structure – the things we need to do,” said Cernak. “We are doing the right things in our zone so the offense is all good there. Our offense is getting better all the time so we have to keep communicating that and getting better at that.”

Tampa Bay drew closer early in the third when Victor Hedman fired a solid slap shot just inside the blue line off a pass from Brayden Point. Mathieu Joseph was set up at the left side of the net and redirected the shot to cut the lead to 4-3 at 1:53.

The Bolts had chances all evening and had a huge opportunity to pull even late in the third period.

Point found himself on the left side of the goal with the puck, but Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky turned Point away with just over four minutes to play. The stop held the game at 4-3 as the Lightning finally had ran out of a lifeline in trying to take two from the Panthers

“Pointer makes a really good play and the goalie makes a nice save,” said  Cooper. “Who knows if that goes in maybe we are still playing.”

Florida started fast as DuClair opened scoring as he redirected a shot from Sam Bennett at 8:41 to give Florida a 1-0 lead. DuClair was able to position himself in front of Cernak for the redirection as Bennett fired off the right side of the net.

The Panthers struck again at 12:31 when Aleksander Barkov rebounded a missed  shot and scored on the left side of the net on the tap in. It was Barkov’s team-leading 19th goal of the season and the Panthers’ 32nd power play goal of the season. He has produced six goals and eight points since returning from injury eight games ago.

“We had a lot of puck possession tonight,” noted Cooper. “I don’t know how much we generated we will have to go back and look at it. I thought we actually played better in the game tonight than we did the other night when we won.”

Point thought the offense was more connected as well despite the missed opportunities.

“i thought we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in our ‘D’ zone and there were stretches where we did control the game, he sai. “Passes were on the tape and guys were more confident making plays. It’s a good step in the right direction, but obviously you want to win games.”