TAMPA — The Florida Panthers may have had the most successful season in their history, but it suddenly feels hollow to say such things today.
These Panthers, by far the best team the franchise has ever fielded, are on the verge of a quick exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
To rub salt into this wound, it will most likely be the Tampa Bay Lightning that kicks the Panthers out of the playoffs for a second straight year.
To make it even worse, Tampa Bay pulled out the brooms.
On Sunday, the Lightning did it again against the Panthers, scoring twice in the second period en route to a 5-1 win in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series.
The Lightning can end Florida’s season with a win Monday night; Game 4 is scheduled for 7 p.m. and Tampa Bay is looking to move on and build momentum toward a third consecutive Cup kick.
For the Panthers, the hope was to come to Tampa and get things back on track.
Florida played a solid game, had a lot of chances, but the Lightning were just the better team.
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Even with a victory on Sunday, Florida would have continued to trail in the series, but at least they would be back.
Now the Panthers are on the brink of elimination.
Tampa Bay, playing in front of a packed sell-out crowd, took the initial lead again, earning a deflection goal from Corey Perry shortly after Florida killed its first penalty.
The Panthers tied the game as their scoreless power play finally broke their streak when Sam Reinhart hammered a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That was about all Vasilevskiy was going to give up.
Tampa Bay made it 2-1 in the second on a rifle shot from Erik Cernak that went over Sergei Bobrovsky’s outstretched glove.
The Panthers then took over the power play and had perhaps their best chance of the game – they couldn’t do anything against Vasilevskiy.
Huberdeau had a point-blank shot from defender Ryan McDonagh, an almost certain goal that would have changed the course of the game.
That’s because Tampa Bay took its biggest lead since the end of Game 1, with Steven Stamkos finding himself all alone sliding into the left circle – his favorite spot on the ice – where he once netted a perfect pass from Nikita Kucherov midway through the period.
Florida continued to have chances, but Vasilevskiy kept things where they were.
He was also lucky; the Panthers had a number of loose pucks — including one from Maxim Maxim with five minutes left — that couldn’t go all the way.
Florida retired Bobrovsky with 4:45 left and Sasha Barkov did a good job blocking a shot from Nick Paul to keep the game at two goals. But with 3:54 to go, Kucherov grabbed the puck in the Florida zone — with an empty net in front of him.
Yeah, three-goal game.
Stamkos also scored a second goal with 2:09 remaining.
The Panthers had always planned to go home on Monday night.
Will it be for Game Wednesday or will it be for the summer?
Things are definitely not looking good for the Panthers right now.
THE THREE STARS OF THE GR GAME
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay
2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay
3. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMI-FINALS
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING (TBL leads 3-0)
- Game 4: Monday, 7 p.m.
- Or: Amalie Arena, Tampa
- Television/Broadcast: DTT
- After game: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING
- Regular Season Series — Tied 2-2: Florida 4, @Lightning 1 (October 19); @ Lightning 3, Florida 2 OT (13 Nov); @Florida 9, Lightning 3 (December 30); Tampa Bay 8, @Florida 4 (April 24).
- All-regular time season series: Panthers lead 73-49-18, 10 draws
- Playoff history: Second meeting; Tampa Bay d. Florida 4-2 in R1, 2021
- Round 1: Florida d. Washington 4-2; Tampa Bay d. Toronto 4-3
- Full schedule — Game 1: Tampa Bay 4, @Florida 1; Game 2: Tampa Bay 2, @Florida 1; Game 3: @Tampa Bay 5, Florida 1; Game 4: Florida at Tampa Bay, Monday 7 (TNT); 5* game: Tampa Bay Florida, Wednesday May 25 (Time, TV TBA); Game 6*: Florida at Tampa Bay Lightning, Friday, May 27 (Time, TV TBA); Game 7*: Tampa Bay, Fla., Sunday, May 29 (Time, TV TBA). (*) – If necessary.