With three of its starting centermen out of the lineup, not to mention superstar Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning did its best to even things up against the Panthers on a fight-filled Saturday night.
The Lightning not only knocked out defenseman Aaron Ekblad and diminutive forward Denis Malgin with big hits along the boards, but it scored with 2:23 left to help its slim playoff chances by beating Florida 3-2 at Amalie Arena.
The Lightning salvaged a season split with its cross-state and divisional rivals while also putting another crimp in Florida’s rapidly fading postseason hopes.
Tampa Bay extended its lead on Florida in the Eastern Conference playoff race to four points. The Panthers have dropped eight of their past nine, getting just three of the available 18 points.
Instead of looking toward a first-round playoff meeting with the Washington Capitals, the Panthers are now looking toward a season-ending game in Washington D.C. against the Caps on April 9.
“We just need to win one, get our confidence back,” Vincent Trocheck said. “That will help us get back in the race.”
Said Derek MacKenzie: “I’ll be honest; I don’t know what the standings are. I’m not looking at them. I have been in this position before. The only thing you can do is win, win and win.”
The Panthers, fresh off a 7-4 home loss to the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, had James Reimer back in net after he faced 44 shots on goal and 70 attempted shots.
Reimer stood tall for Florida time and again and, at least in the first period, his teammates gave him some run support.
Jaromir Jagr put the Panthers on the board as he corralled a big rebound off a Sasha Barkov shot and sent an odd-angled shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy with 3:28 left in the opening period.
In the final minute of the first, defenseman Mark Pysyk made it 2-0 when he fired in a long shot with Jagr blocking.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, that would conclude their scoring for the night.
“Those were two teams fighting hard,” Pysyk said. “We just didn’t get the result we wanted. We were shortened up on the back end, but we need to find a way to win these. It could have gone either way.
“The past couple of games we’ve played pretty well, done good things. We’re just not winning the close ones we need to win.”
The Lightning got physical in the second, with Ekblad being knocked out of the game when he went head first into the glass thanks to a high hit from Gabriel Dumont.
Minutes later, Anton Stralman sized up Malgin and drove him into the corner of the glass off the Florida bench with a slow hip check. Malgin remained face down on the ice for what seemed like an hour before he slowly rose and was helped out through the nearby tunnel to the Florida training room.
That hit also cost Florida the services of defenseman Alex Petrovic, who went after Stralman and was ejected.
Tom Rowe, Florida’s interim coach and general manager, said he thought the hit on Malgin was “a good, clean hit” but thought the hit on Ekblad was “dangerous” and a “cheap shot from behind” and told the supervisor of officiating.
“It was a great hockey game, great for the state of Florida,” Rowe said. “We want to build a rivalry here, and they want to build one with us. That’s as close to a playoff game as you’re going to get in the regular season. It was tough to lose.”
Tampa Bay cut into Florida’s lead between the Ekblad and Malgin hits — both did not return because of possible concussions — when Nikita Kucherov broke the Panthers’ impressive penalty kill run 3:43 into the second.
Before Kucherov beat Reimer, Florida had successfully killed off 31 consecutive penalties.
The Lightning eventually tied the score midway through the second when Yanni Gourde forced a turnover in the neutral zone, raced by Trocheck and put a soft, sliding shot through the legs of Reimer.
“I thought we played extremely well, especially being down [three] players, especially coming off a back-to-back,” said Reimer, who made 31 saves. “At the end of the day, it’s not over. We’ve been playing good hockey. In my experiences, if you keep playing the right way, you’ll get the bounces.”
Tampa Bay got its first lead of the night with 2:23 left after Ondrej Palat knocked down a shot from Andrej Sustr and past Reimer.
▪ Greg McKegg didn’t need to introduce himself to the Panthers on Saturday night, as the former Florida fourth-liner stepped into the Lightning lineup for the first time in four games because of all of Tampa’s injuries.
The Lightning was without starting centers Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov on Saturday.
McKegg, who played in 31 games for the Panthers this season, was claimed by the Lightning when Florida waived him just before the trade deadline last month.