The Florida Panthers had their chances early in Thursday’s season opener — 11 more than the Tampa Bay Lightning through two periods.
Their attacks on Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy came in droves — two, three, sometimes four at a time.
“He usually makes the first save,” Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau said in a mid-game interview with Fox Sports Florida, “so we have to put traffic in front of him.”
But even with the barrage, the Panthers had trouble getting the puck past Vasilevskiy and a strong Tampa Bay blue line.
And so the Joel Quenneville era of Panthers hockey starts with a 5-2 loss to the Lightning at Amelie Arena. It marks the third consecutive season that the Panthers dropped their season opener.
“I liked the first 40 minutes,” Quenneville said. “The last 20 was a little bit too loose for us. They got some timely goals late in the power play, but I thought for the most part we were in pretty good shape and then we didn’t have the puck much in the third.”
Florida (0-1-0) had a 37-30 shot-on-goal advantage over Tampa Bay (1-0-0) in the loss — including a 28-17 mark after two periods — and had another dozen shots blocked.
Even at that, the Panthers never led on Thursday.
They tied the game twice — first on a Mike Hoffman quick tap in front of the net in the second period to make it 1-1 and again in the third period when Vincent Trocheck slapped it into the net in a man-down situation to make it 2-2 with 11:11 left in regulation.
But Ondrej Palat gave the Lightning the lead for good 45 seconds after Trocheck’s game-tying shot with a power-play goal and started a three-goal flurry for Tampa Bay in the final 10-and-a-half minutes.
“We had a lot of chances. We should have scored a lot more,” center Aleksander Barkov said. “I feel like playing a game like that and giving away a win like that is not the way we want to play.”
Vasilevskiy, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner given to NHL’s best goaltender, kept the Panthers at bay other than that.
The Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky couldn’t say the same.
He made a few spectacular saves — including a diving stop to rob Palat of a goal in the second period.
“It was one of those games where he did what he could do,” Quenneville said.
But it was the four shots he couldn’t save that made the difference.
Nikita Kucherov opened scoring with 13:21 left in the first period on a delayed penalty, taking a feed from Mikhail Sergachev and firing a shot past a crowded net and just above Bobrovsky’s right shoulder. The goal came on a delayed penalty after the Lightning spent close to two minutes in the Panthers’ defensive zone and Florida couldn’t clear the puck.
Kevin Shattenkirk made it 2-1 in the second period as a Tampa Bay power play came to an end.
Palat gave Tampa Bay the lead in the third and Patrick Maroon gave the Lightning insurance when he tapped in a rebound from a Tyler Johnson miss past Bobrovsky with just over six minutes left. An Eric Cernak open-net goal with 45 seconds left closed scoring.
“I felt good,” Bobrovsky said. “Obviously, we wanted to have a W tonight, but it is what it is. It’s a long season. We don’t have to think too much. Just have to put this game behind us.”
The Panthers had their share of opportunities that came just short. Notable among them: Dryden Hunt’s first-period shot that clanged off the post and Evgenii Dadonov’s missed one-on-one after a breakaway after getting a clean feed from Trocheck.
The Panthers went 0 for 4 on the power play, had eight giveaways and lost and the faceoff battle 36-23.