Panthers score twice in the third period and beat the Lightning 3-2 in Game 1 of NHL playoffs

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Panthers Win Opening Game 3-2 Over Lightning
Teammates congratulate Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) after Tkachuk scored an empty-net goal during the third period of Game 1 of the first-round of an NHL Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Sunday, April 21, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Here’s a sentence that has never been said: Florida leads Tampa Bay in a playoff series.

And for the Panthers, that’s a great way to start.

Carter Verhaeghe tapped in a pinpoint pass from Aleksander Barkov for the lead 58 seconds into the third period, Matthew Tkachuk added a goal and an assist and the Panthers beat the Lightning 3-2 in Game 1 of their NHL playoff series Sunday.

Barkov had two assists, Sam Reinhart also scored and Sergei Bobrovsky had 17 saves for the Panthers, who won a Game 1 on home ice for the first time since 1997.

“Game 1 was great,” Tkachuk said, “especially being on the winning side.”

Brandon Hagel and Steven Stamkos got the goals for Tampa Bay. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 25 stops for the Lightning, who pulled him for an extra attacker with 3:08 remaining. Tkachuk got an empty-netter 63 seconds later, and Florida soon began celebrating a 1-0 series lead.

Stamkos scored with 9.3 seconds left for the Lightning, but Florida controlled the ensuing face-off and time expired.

Verhaeghe’s goal came on the power play, one that carried over from late in the second period. Barkov held the puck on the right wing, then sent a diagonal pass through the slot to a hard-charging Verhaeghe — who was behind everyone else and simply touched the puck into an open net.

“I didn’t even see the pass,” Verhaeghe said. “Just hit my stick. That’s how well Barky can pass the puck.”

It’s the third time the Sunshine State rivals have met in the playoffs — both of the first two having gone Tampa Bay’s way, and basically in one-sided fashion. The Lightning won 4-2 on their way to their second straight Stanley Cup in 2021, then swept Florida 4-0 in 2022 and outscored the Panthers 13-3 in that series.

That ouster brought changes to Florida, which hired Paul Maurice to implement a new style geared toward winning in the playoffs without sacrificing offense. The Panthers rode that to the Stanley Cup final last year, to the Atlantic Division title this year — and it was enough in Game 1.

“We have history between these two teams,” Barkov said. “Last two times, it didn’t work out well for us but we want to change it now. I think we have a great opportunity here and today was unreal. It’s been a great atmosphere here all season, but man, we missed the playoffs. We missed this atmosphere.”

Florida took the game’s first eight shots, keeping Tampa Bay from getting anything to Bobrovsky until 15:55 had elapsed in the opening period. And then it was the Lightning who clamped down — holding Florida to only six shots in the next 25 minutes, no small feat against the team that has gotten, by far, the most shots on net in the NHL over the last four seasons.

Shots after two periods: Florida 14, Tampa Bay 10. It tied the second-fewest shots the Panthers had through 40 minutes this season, and tied the third-fewest the Lightning had entering a third period.

“That was a pretty tight-checking game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And in the end, a power-play goal was the difference.”

Reinhart scored on a tip-in 6:13 into the game, and Hagel connected off a rebound from the slot at 16:04 of the first. It stayed that way until Verhaeghe skated unnoticed to the left side of the crease and tapped in the pass from Barkov for the 2-1 lead.

“Came down to not executing on the power play to start the third,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “That was the difference today.”

UP NEXT

Game 2 is Tuesday in Sunrise.

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