The building was loud and the action intense with post-whistle scrums, lead changes, breakaway goals, returning stars producing, elite goalies making clutch saves, players diving into shooting lanes to block shots, crunching hits and so much more.
Game 1 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup First Round on Sunday had all the trimmings for exactly what it was, exactly what we’ve been missing for so long, a playoff hockey feast with emotion both on the ice and in the crowd of 9,646.
The Lightning, the No. 3 seed in the Discover Central Division, got the early edge in it, winning 5-4 against the No. 2 Panthers on forward Brayden Point‘s breakaway goal with 1:14 remaining in the third period in the first all-Florida best-of-7 NHL playoff series.
Game 2 is Tuesday. It has a lot to live up to.
“It was quite a hockey game, two exceptional teams going at it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s why it’s the greatest sport in the world. We just witnessed why, that display of those two teams.”
There were four lead changes in a game for the fourth time in NHL playoff history. There were 17 penalties totaling 34 minutes, including five matching minors creating 4-on-4 situations. The Lightning got off 40 shots, with Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stopping 35. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy also made 35 saves, but he faced one fewer shot.
“Very intense game,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said.
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov scored two goals and had an assist, all on the power play, in his first game in seven and a half months. Kucherov didn’t play the entire regular season while recovering from hip surgery he had Dec. 29.
Cooper said the Lightning initially didn’t expect him back until maybe the second round, if that.
In Game 1, he fired in two one-timers from the right circle off passes from defenseman Victor Hedman (three assists) and delivered a one-timer pass from the right circle to Point for the game-tying goal at 13:00 of the third.
The difference he made was not only noticeable, it was tangible.
“To sit out that long and have a repair and go through all that rehab and come out tonight in a very fast and physical game and perform the way he did, it’s incredible,” Point said. “But he’s a world-class player and we’re just happy to have him back.”
The Panthers came out intent on being physical. They generated 20 hits to go along with their 18 shots on goal in the first period. They finished with a 54-36 edge in hits, fueling the emotion in the building with their energy on the ice.
“It was unbelievable,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who scored a goal and had an assist. “I had like goosebumps before the game during the anthem. It was so nice. You want this to happen every game and we’re going to do our best on the ice. A lot of support from our fans. We love that, we appreciate that, and we want to keep going.”
Quenneville said he actually had the challenge of getting everybody on the bench to hear what he was saying, especially as the Panthers came back from down 1-0 and 3-2 to take the lead each time.
The Lightning responded each time like the defending Cup champion team they are.
“We’re comfortable playing in these types of games and I think we’re going to see it a lot,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said. “That’s a [heck] of a team over there.”
Everything that happened from the opening face-off to the final buzzer Sunday either matched or exceeded expectations for what this first-of-its-kind series could be.
It without question fueled more talk and anticipation for how this all-Florida matchup is not just a geographic rivalry anymore.
It’s a real one, now finally featuring playoff bumps, bruises, passion, and hostility, with more to come.
“I don’t think this is going to be the last time we see these guys in the playoffs, but as of right now it certainly feels like [a rivalry] with the amount of games we played against them down the stretch and now in the playoffs,” Stamkos said. “They’re a very good hockey team and so are we. If Game 1 was any indication this is going to be a great series, a long series.”