The Panthers got past first-ballot Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin this week, but they couldn’t beat rising superstar Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Kucherov, who leads the NHL with 84 points, scored two goals and added one assist as Tampa Bay beat the host Panthers 5-2 on Sunday night.
In a quirk of the game, Florida outshot Tampa Bay 17-3 in the second period yet each team scored twice in those 20 minutes.
“That [determined] the game,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “We should have come out of there at least tied [instead of trailing 3-2] or even up one.”
The loss ended an impressive spurt for the Panthers, who beat Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 on Thursday and vanquished Ovechkin — who leads the NHL in goals — and the Washington Capitals 5-4 in a big overtime win on Saturday.
Crosby and Ovechkin were held without a goal and combined for just one assist.
Kucherov, however, scored the game’s first goal on Sunday, and the Panthers never led at any point. His second goal came in the final minute.
This was the last game of the season series against Tampa Bay — mercifully so for the Panthers, who lost all four contests but did pick up two points (0-2-2).
It’s a painful sight for Panthers fans to look up and see their in-state rivals, the Lightning, leading the NHL standings. In fact, the Lightning has won at least 40 games for six consecutive seasons. The Panthers, meanwhile, have only won 40 games five times in franchise history.
Tampa Bay on Sunday prevailed with backup goalie Louis Domingue, who stopped 25 shots and won his 10th consecutive start.
Domingue (18-4-0) is 3-0 against the Panthers this season and hasn’t lost to anyone since Nov. 27. His 18 wins are already his career high.
Tampa Bay also got goals from Steven Stamkos (No. 29), Ryan Callahan (his sixth); and Brayden Point (team-high No. 32). Point is the player who beat the Panthers on Dec. 1 with an overtime goal here at the BB&T Center.
Florida got goals from Frank Vatrano, his 19th, and Denis Malgin, his sixth this season and his first in exactly one month. Vatrano leads the Panthers in even-strength goals with 17.
Panthers backup goalie James Reimer made nine saves on 12 shots and was pulled after two periods in favor of Roberto Luongo (nine saves on 11 shots).
“We needed some saves,” Boughner said of Reimer’s unimpressive second period. “It was an easy decision [to pull Reimer].”
The Lightning opened the scoring with just 4:02 gone in the first period as Kucherov’s bad-angle shot got past Reimer.
“I didn’t like our first period,” Boughner said. “We were way too casual, and it took us too long to get going.”
Tampa Bay extended its lead to 2-0 with 12:08 expired in the second period. The Lightning showed its speed as Anton Stralman passed ahead to Stamkos, who redirected the puck over Reimer’s glove.
Florida got on the board 63 seconds later on the rush. Jonathan Huberdeau sent a short cross-ice pass to Vatrano, who cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 2-1.
The Panthers had a chance to score, but Vincent Trocheck was a bit reluctant to shoot, looking to make a set-up pass. Instead, Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan stole the puck and made a great backhand move at the end to score a breakaway goal past Reimer’s stick with 2:09 left in the second period.
Florida, though, cut its deficit to 3-2 after Malgin’s shot just 59 seconds later went in off Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s stick. Florida’s Riley Sheahan had a screen set up in front.
After Trocheck was called for hooking Kucherov, the Lightning power play cashed in on Point’s blast over Luongo’s right shoulder just 4:25 into the third period. J.T. Miller’s set-up pass earned him the primary assist.
Tampa Bay closed the scoring on Kucherov’s power-play goal with 48 seconds left.