Bolts take 3-0 lead over dazed Florida

by Gary Shelton on May 23, 2022

in general

Vasilevskiy prepares to make another stop./TIM WIRT

Monday, 4 a.m.

There is blood in the water now. The Tampa Bay Lightning, kings of the kill shot, can smell it. It seems to have made them hungrier than ever.

How on earth can the Florida Panthers stop them now?

The Panthers, the best team in the NHL during the regular season, have been outplayed. They've been outworked. They've been out-everythinged, and now they trail 3-0 in their best-of-seven series.

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Kucherov, Stamkos celebrate success./TIM WIRT

Can they figure out Andrei Vasilevskiy? Can they slow down Nikita Kucherov? Can they get the puck on the other side of a defense that seems to eat them?

The odds are not with them. In NHL history, 198 teams have fallen behind 3-0, and 194 of them have lost (five teams forced a game seven).

But have any of them faced a two-time Cup winning team, playing at home, after finding its stride the way the Lightning has? Consider what Florida coach Andrew Brunette said: "They have more will and more desire than we do."

They also have stars who were on display again for the Bolts Sunday.

-- Goaltender Vasilevskiy stopped 34 shots and played his fourth straight game of allowing just one goal. He leads all NHL goaltenders with wins. In his three games against the Panthers, who averaged almost four goals a game in the regular season, he's made 105 saves on 108 shots.

-- Forward Nikita Kucherov, dazzling during the series, had four points.

-- Forward Steven Stamkos scored two goals.

-- The team blocked 19 more shots, giving them 59 for the three games the teams have played.

Cernak jumps to celebrate his goal./TIM WIRT

And so it goes. The Bolts seem to have more flair, more grit, more experience. They try to finish the series tonight at home at 7 p.m., but the Panthers would have to win four straight games to advance.

"We’re committed to playing D," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's a pretty committed group. I think you’ve seen it through the series. We feel like we have a recipe going on, we’ve just got to stick to it.

“We’re damn pleased with what’s going on, but we haven’t done anything yet. The series isn’t over. Until you start checking off that fourth win, there’s nothing you can hang your hat on. We’re inching closer, but there is more to do."

The Bolts took an early lead when Corey Perry deflected the puck into the net. The Panthers tied the game with their first successful post-season power plaly (after being 0-for-25 in the post-season).

In the second period, however. Erik Cernak scored a rare goal to put the Bolts ahead. Then came a key penalty kill -- Ryan McDonagh blocked a shot with the shaft of his stick -- and the Bolts' Steven Stamkos scored almost immediately.

“It was a big part of the game." Cooper said. "We’re hanging onto the lead and take the penalty. Their power play is buzzing a bit. There's a reason McDonagh has played in so many playoff games in his career. He’s like a star. Those plays you make when you don’t have the puck are sometimes  the biggest ones. That was a big one for us because we eventually kill it off and come out and make it 3-1. That was a little bit of a bubble burster for them. Those are the breaks you need."

The Bolts seem to have frustrated the high scorers of the Panthers with their blocks throughout the series.

 “We talk about special teams, especially come playoff time," Stamkos said. "Kills in one goal games feeds the energy on the bench. It really is inspiring. They're blocking shots, doing what they have to do, coming to the bench gasping of air."

The Bolts padded their lead with empty-net goals by Kucherov and Stamkos.

Tampa Bay will try to close out the series tonight at 7 p.m. at Amalie Arena. If successful in any of the next four games, the Bolts would advance to their sixth conference finals in eight seasons.

McDonagh made a huge play for the Bolts./TIM WIRT

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