Kucherov, Point lead Lightning over Panthers in nasty, fun Game 1

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It took until the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first Florida First Round series between the Lightning and Panthers. If the rest of this series is anything like Game 1, fans will beg the Lightning and Panthers to do this every year.

Top players — yes, Nikita Kucherov included — made some big plays in Game 1 for the Lightning and Panthers. Kucherov stood out during the second period, and eventually made additional plays late. Jonathan Huberdeau owned the first half of the third, but then Brayden Point made the ultimate difference in the second half of that final frame.

Phew!

Ultimately, the Lightning beat the Panthers 5-4 in Game 1 to take a 1-0 series lead. Buckle up, because this could be a classic series.

Plenty of nastiness between Lightning, Panthers in Game 1

In case you were wondering: these two teams have engaged in some nasty, nasty regular-season games. That tension took little time to transfer over to Game 1 of Lightning – Panthers.

Should Ryan McDonagh face supplemental discipline for a dangerous hit on Anthony Duclair? Are the Panthers wise in trading power-play chances with the Lightning, like they often did in Game 1?

Either way, the early message of this series has been: keep your head on a swivel.

Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy had to be alert early and often, too.

The Panthers and Lightning opened Game 1 at a frenetic pace, and it only really slowed down slightly. These two teams are setting a high bar for speed, skill, and spiteful physicality. It won’t be easy — maybe even possible — to match that level. If it does, whoever wins might limp into their next battle.

But it’s been absolutely spellbinding hockey, with something for everyone. (You like violence? Feast. Want speed, skill, and sizzling saves? You will also feast.)

Kucherov shows his value on special teams

Maybe there are subtle elements to Nikita Kucherov’s overall work that didn’t shine in Lightning – Panthers Game 1. But the Bolts would probably settle for “this” Kucherov if they had to.

It brings up a key question: should the Panthers maintain the intensity that deployed in Game 1 vs. the Lightning? In particular, is it wise to trade power plays?

While Kucherov couldn’t score on an early breakaway, he generated two power-play goals during the second period. Now, Aleksander Barkov scored a PPG of his own, but the Panthers also gave up a shorthanded tally.

Credit the Panthers for bouncing back from an early blow. That shorthanded goal came after a would-be Sam Bennett power-play goal was called off. Florida didn’t let that linger.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 First Round schedule, TV info]

The Panthers didn’t let falling behind 3-2 to the Lightning through the first 40 minutes get them too down, either. Thanks to some stellar work from Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers went from down 3-2 to up 4-3 midway through the third.

Huberdeau scored a semi-breakaway goal with a move that might have been influenced by David Savard‘s (unsuccessful) attempts to diffuse. Later on, Huberdeau didn’t score the 4-3 goal, but he did all the work to create a great opportunity.

For those who want Huberdeau and Barkov to get praise on a larger stage, this was definitely a big start.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Don’t let that montage of first period violence lead you astray, either: the nastiness rarely subsided. If the Lightning and Panthers can echo the intensity of Game 1 throughout this First Round series, it could end up being a challenge for NHL officiating.

Maybe things could have cooled down here and there. Yet, really, how many fans are going to complain — at least about the overall level of play? (Now, individual calls? Hockey fans will always enjoy griping about those.)

Lightning ultimately win Game 1; Panthers eat painful loss

Really, it looks imperative for Florida to find a better balance, because Tampa Bay burned them over and over again on the PP. A 4-3 lead dissolved after the Lighting scored a PPG, with Nikita Kucherov cleverly setting up Brayden Point.

It looked like this one might go to overtime, but then again, this pace allowed for few safe moments. (It says a lot about the pace that, truly, it’s difficult to put too much blame on either Sergei Bobrovsky or Andrei Vasilevskiy.)

After scoring the 4-4 goal, Brayden Point sprung loose for the 5-4 game-winner.

The Panthers were pretty killer in transition during Game 1, yet they got burned for the Lightning winner via Point, and Kucherov almost hand one that way, too. Florida played well enough that they might thrive in this wild style, but Tampa Bay grabbed the win when the smoke cleared.

What a game.

PANTHERS VS. LIGHTNING (TBL leads 1-0) – series livestream link

Game 1: Lightning 5, Panthers 4
Tuesday, May 18: Lightning at Panthers, 8 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Thursday, May 20: Panthers at Lightning, 6:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Saturday, May 22: Panthers at Lightning, 12:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
*Monday, May 24: Lightning at Panthers TBD
*Wednesday, May 26: Panthers at Lightning TBD
*Friday, May 28: Lightning at Panthers TBD

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.