No Point, no problem? Kucherov, Lightning fluster Panthers in Game 1

No Point, no problem? Kucherov, Lightning beat Panthers in Game 1
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All things considered, the stage was set for the Panthers to beat the Lightning in Game 1. After all, Tampa Bay lacked star forward Brayden Point. Nikita Kucherov suited up for the Lightning, and he clearly made the difference for Tampa Bay in Game 1.

While Game 1 was closer than the 4-1 score, the bottom line is that the Lightning lead the Panthers in this series 1-0.

Kucherov stars as Lightning beat Panthers in Game 1

Heading into Game 1, the Lightning lineup looked a little thin against a relatively healthy Panthers with a deep lineup.

Personally, it feels like this will be one Florida regrets. An already-thin Tampa Bay offering eventually waded through a portion of this one thanks to an Erik Cernak injury. It’s unclear how serious Cernak’s issue is, but he didn’t return after a blocked shot.

The Panthers boast high-profile stars in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, trade deadline investment Claude Giroux, and defensemen like Aaron Ekblad. None of them made a difference like Kucherov did in Game 1.

Heck, sometimes Kucherov made those players look downright silly.

On the 1-1 goal, Nikita Kucherov juked Aaron Ekblad into oblivion, then set up Corey Perry for one of the easiest playoff goals you can achieve with a goalie in net.

Kucherov also used his elusiveness to draw the penalty before that goal, suckering in MacKenzie Weegar. Note that both Ekblad and Weegar have, at times, put up borderline-Norris-level stats during these past two seasons as the Panthers emerged as (at least a regular season) power.

Later on in Game 1, the Panthers gave Nikita Kucherov way too much room on a late power-play opportunity, and he put the Lightning up 3-1.

[2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, TV information]

Out of desperation, Panthers coach Andrew Brunette challenged the 3-1 goal for interference. The Lightning would score on the power play from that failed review.

So the actual final score of 4-1 was misleading. To give you an idea of how close it was, Anthony Duclair seemingly scored a 2-2 power-play goal in the third period. It didn’t stand, as officials correctly asserted that the puck left play before the PPG.

Now, while the game was closer than it looked, the Panthers really have a lot of thinking to do if they want to avoid losing another “Battle of Florida” against the Lightning.

Some adjustments for Panthers to consider against the Lightning after sluggish Game 1

More Verhaeghe; more speed?

As skilled as Nikita Kucherov is, the Bolts were likely hoping for a slower pace. Generally, when you dress one extra defenseman and one fewer forward, you’re probably not rooting for an affair full of dazzling skill, breakneck speed, and end-to-end rushes.

At times, people noted that the Panthers found ways to use their speed advantage over the Lightning in Game 1.

Generally speaking, there was a real lack of energy in this contest. Again, that probably plays to Tampa Bay’s advantage. (Especially when Kucherov can still find opportunities to burn Florida with extra space.)

Personally, the Panthers need to find ways to manufacture more of those situations.

From an eye test perspective, it sure seems like Carter Verhaeghe is one of the Panthers players most consistently breaking through the Lightning’s neutral zone defense (as Verhaeghe did against the Capitals).

This thread carries over from series to series so far, as it’s surprising that the Panthers only trotted out Verhaeghe for 16:54 in this one.

Pawing at Panthers’ power play problems

Whether it means more Verhaeghe on the top unit or some other adjustment, the power play is one area where the Panthers really need to find answers.

Sometimes, in the playoffs, small sample sizes can lead to overreactions. To me, that’s clear if a team is just not getting lucky breaks.

But there’s an element of “making your own luck,” and the Cats haven’t been intimidating in the postseason. It’s one thing to begin the postseason 0-for-21 on the power play. It’s another when you’re being kept to the perimeter and not really creating the chances that can break a slump.

So, what would help the Panthers improve their power play?

Maybe it’s a matter of mixing up tactics. That said, I’d ponder some experiments with personnel.

It’s important to remember that Claude Giroux is still new to this team. Beyond that, Aaron Ekblad missed a lot of time.

Normally, I’m all for specializing on the power play. Create familiarity, and also an area of options. Maybe that’s the situation Florida’s in.

But what if some of this is about chemistry? One thought I often have with truly dead power-play momentum is: why not act basically like business as usual? Throw out your typical top scoring lines, then give some room to experiment by going with one more forward, and a scoring defenseman such as Ekblad, Weegar, or even Gustav Forsling/Brandon Montour.

Carter Verhaeghe’s red-hot right now. Why not get him more PP reps? Patric Hornqvist is a nightmare in front of goalies. Maybe he can create havoc, even if he’s no longer the top-line winger he once was?

Other tweaks?

It may be worthwhile to explore a variety of elements to get Florida back to the relentless attacking team it was.

  • Ben Chiarot hasn’t been a disaster, like he was at times with Montreal. But he also may not be the sort of catalyst you want. Even if he’s the “defensive consciousness” for a right-handed defenseman such as Montour, Ekblad, or Weegar, I’m not sure if Chiarot should be starting about 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone. It’s basically the opposite of how Montreal used him. The best option may be somewhere in the middle.
  • Is Aaron Ekblad healthy? He missed time late in the regular season, opening up the question to start the playoffs. From receiving a big hit by Alex Ovechkin to other playoff bumps-and-bruises, maybe Ekblad’s blurring the line between hurt vs. injured.

During the regular season, Ekblad played the majority of his 5-on-5 minutes alongside MacKenzie Weegar. It’s very rare to put two right-handed defensemen together, but the two crushed it. The two haven’t been put together as often during the playoffs.

There are a variety of situations where two right-handed or two-left-handed defensemen can have some issues retrieving pucks, avoiding turnovers, and in other areas. It’s understandable if Brunette is afraid of those implications.

But would the rewards outweigh the risks?

If nothing else, the Panthers should at least ask these questions — or similar ones — after the Lightning beat them in Game 1. They’re not getting blown out (4-1 finish notwithstanding), yet they haven’t found the sort of pace that made them a terrifying offense in the regular season.

Chances are, it’s not just because things tighten up in the playoffs.

FLORIDA PANTHERS v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (TBL leads 1-0)

Game 1: Lightning 4, Panthers 1
Game 2 – May 19: Lightning at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 3 – May 22: Panthers at Lightning, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – May 23: Panthers at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – May 25: Lightning at Panthers, TBD
*Game 6 – May 27: Panthers at Lightning, TBD
*Game 7 – May 29: Lightning at Panthers, TBD

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.

Avalanche spoil Kuemper’s return, top Capitals 3-2 as Bednar sets mark

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER – Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Alex Newhook scored against former teammate Darcy Kuemper and the surging Colorado Avalanche held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 to give coach Jared Bednar his franchise-record 266th victory.

Logan O'Connor added two assists, Nathan MacKinnon had an assist for his 700th point and Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves in the Avs’ season-best sixth straight victory. They moved into third place in the Central Division, one point ahead of Minnesota.

Bednar, coaching his 500th game for Colorado, improved to 266-185-49 and passed former Quebec Nordiques boss Michel Bergeron for the most coaching victories in franchise history.

Alex Ovechkin returned from an injury to score his 31st goal for Washington. Conor Sheary also scored and Kuemper stopped 23 shots in his first game in Denver since helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in June.

The crowd stood and applauded after a first-period video tribute for Kuemper, who won 37 games in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs.

The Avs chose not to re-sign Kuemper, who then inked a five-year deal with the Capitals in July.

He had his moments against his former team, including nifty glove saves against Jacob MacDonald and Lehkonen in the second period to keep it a one-goal game. But Newhook’s goal with 4:21 left in the second made it 3-1.

The depleted Capitals dominated the third period but still lost for the fifth time in seven games.

Ovechkin’s one-timer at 9:44 of the third was his 811th goal after he missed his first game of the season Saturday with a lower-body injury. But Washington was without T.J. Oshie, who left to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. And Nicklas Backstrom was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness.

Then Tom Wilson exited in the second period after blocking a shot and underwent an X-ray between periods.

The Avalanche, who haven’t trailed during their win streak, solved Kuemper at 8:57 of the first when MacKinnon absorbed a big hit from Dmitry Orlov and fed Lehkonen for his 15th goal and sixth in six games.

Cogliano redirected Kurtis MacDermid‘s shot 2:04 into the second to make it 2-0. Sheary cut the. lead in half when he tipped in Martin Fehervary‘s shot for his 12th goal just over two minutes later.

HE BROKE THE CUP

It also marked the return of Washington’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had 22 points in 67 games for the Avs in 2021-22, He’s remembered for dropping and denting the Cup during the on-ice celebration.

“It’s part of my journey here,” a smiling Aube-Kubel said of his fumble, adding the season was “the best time of my life.”

NOTES: Avs D Cale Makar (upper body) practiced Monday and took part in the morning skate, but missed his fourth straight game. … Avs W Anton Blidh cleared waivers and skated on the fourth line. … Aliaksei Protas centered Washington’s third line in his first NHL action since Jan. 5 and was robbed by Georgiev in the first period. … The Capitals have only four games left outside the Eastern time zone.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Pittsburgh.

Avalanche: Host Anaheim.