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