Panthers get over ‘hump,’ oust Tampa from playoffs

Panthers get over 'hump,' oust Tampa from playoffs

SUNRISE, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov remembers the disappointment of years past.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had eliminated his Florida Panthers from the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of their previous three meetings, and if the Panthers wanted to cement themselves as one of the NHL’s best, this year’s result needed to be different.

“At some point you knew you were going to have them again,” Barkov said, “and you’ve got to be able to get over that hump, and we did it this year.”

Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe each had two goals and an assist to go along with 31 saves from Sergei Bobrovsky, and the Panthers beat the Lightning 6-1 in Game 5 on Monday night to clinch the first-round series.

Niko Mikkola had a goal and an assist, Evan Rodrigues also scored and Matthew Tkachuk had two assists for the Panthers, who won a playoff series against Tampa Bay for the first time in franchise history and clinched a postseason series at home for only the fourth time. Florida bested Boston and Philadelphia on home ice in the first two rounds of the 1996 playoffs then eliminated Carolina at home in last season’s Eastern Conference finals en route to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance.

The Panthers didn’t downplay it: Monday night’s win meant a lot.

All three playoff series between these two teams have come in the past four years, with Tampa Bay winning the first one 4-2 in 2021 then sweeping Florida in 2022. The Panthers won the first three games this year before the Lightning avoided elimination with a 6-3 win in Game 4, forcing the Panthers to close out the series on home ice.

“This was a big series for us,” said Tkachuk, who had three goals and six assists in the first round. “We always knew that for us ultimately to win it all, it was probably going to have to go through Tampa at some point, so just an amazing feeling closing it out at home.”

The Panthers made it past the opening round of the playoffs for a franchise-best third straight year. Florida has won five series over the past three postseasons, the most among all teams during that span.

The Panthers’ six goals were their most in a series-clinching game in franchise history (previous high was four). It also was just the second time that the Panthers had more than one multiple-goal scorer in a playoff game (first time was May 18, 1996, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals versus Pittsburgh, from Tom Fitzgerald and Dave Lowry).

Victor Hedman scored for the Lightning, which was eliminated in the first round for the second straight campaign after reaching the Stanley Cup Final three straight years. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 33 shots.

Verhaeghe opened the scoring for the Panthers with a 4-on-4 goal just 45 seconds into the second period. Verhaeghe grabbed his own rebound and wristed a shot past Vasilevskiy.

Barkov gave Florida a 2-0 lead when he pounced on a rebound for a short-handed goal — his first of the playoffs — at 7:22 of the second period. He added another at 8:54 of a four-goal third for Florida to restore the Panthers’ two-goal cushion after Hedman got the Lightning on the board 59 seconds after Barkov’s first score.

The Panthers had 22 shots on goal in the second, which is the second most in a single period of a playoff game in franchise history. Florida had 23 shots in the third period of a playoff win against Pittsburgh in 1996.

Rodrigues added a score for good measure with less than six minutes left to play on a wrist shot that was his first goal of the playoffs, and Verhaeghe scored an empty-netter with just under four minutes to play to stretch his franchise-record goals total to 20. Mikkola added to the onslaught with another empty-netter nearly three minutes later.

Anthony Cirelli appeared to have scored Tampa Bay’s first goal when he tapped a loose puck past Bobrovsky with seven minutes left in the first period. The goal was overturned, however, after the Panthers challenged for goaltender interference. Former Panther Anthony Duclair‘s right skate made contact with Bobrovsky as he was trying to make the save.

The Lightning had another goal waved off in the second period when Mikhail Sergachev appeared to tie it on a long-range shot from the blue line. The goal was immediately waved off because of goaltender interference by Cirelli and upheld after a failed Tampa Bay challenge.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he didn’t feel Duclair’s interference was “egregious” enough to warrant disallowing the goal.

“Now we have to rebound from that. We do, and then the next one is a net-front battle. I will give the goalie credit: He quit on the play. He completely quit. There was maybe incidental contact, at most.”

“Net-front battles aren’t allowed anymore?” Cooper continued. “That’s part of everybody’s game. The boxing out that goes there is like prison rules in the playoffs. But it’s not prison rules for the goalie? … And when the players are working so hard on both teams, like I said, it’s a war down there. I think we’re letting the goalies off the hook.”

The Lightning’s NHL-best power play from the regular season was inconsistent in this first round. Tampa Bay had two man advantages in the first 10 minutes of the opening period — Florida killed them both off — and finished the game 0-for-3.

The Panthers will play either Boston or Toronto in the second round. Boston leads that series 3-1, with Game 5 on Tuesday.

ESPN Stats & Information and The Associated Press contributed to this report.