The sight of Nikita Kucherov crumpled to the ice in pain left a sour taste in the mouths of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The reigning Stanley Cup champions beat the Florida Panthers 6-2 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round postseason matchup on Saturday, with Kucherov continuing to sparkle after missing the entire regular season while recovering from hip surgery.
Coach Jon Cooper and Kucherov’s teammates understandably were alarmed when the Tampa Bay star went down after being slashed by Florida’s Anthony Duclair with the Panthers trailing by four goals midway through the third period.
“The hockey game ended halfway through the second period, then it turned into something else,” Cooper said after a penalty-filled afternoon that saw Florida finish with 13 penalties for 50 minutes and Tampa Bay 13 for 42 minutes.
“Not much there for me,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the slashing call on Duclair. “I hope he’s all right.”
Kucherov had a goal and three assists.. Alex Killorn scored a pair of second-period goals and notched two assists, while Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 39 of 41 shots for the Lightning, who can wrap up the best-of-seven series by winning Game 5 in Sunrise, Florida, on Monday night.
Kucherov remained on the bench for a short time, but did not return to the game. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachez was also shaken up by a late hit.
Cooper would not discuss the injuries.
“Nothing. Next question,” the coach said.
“It’s tough. You never want to see a guy go down on the ice and stay there,” forward Yanni Gourde said.
“And if one of our guys stays down,” Killorn offered, “he’s hurt.”
The Lightning pushed their intrastate rivals to the brink of elimination by scoring three first-period goals, then building their advantage to 5-1 when Killorn beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky twice in a span of 94 seconds to break the game open.
Gourde, Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat got Tampa Bay off to a fast start with a trio of goals that signaled it was going to be a rough afternoon for Bobrovsky, who earned his second start of the series by coming off the bench to win Game 3 in relief.
Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, stopped all nine shots he faced in the third period and overtime as the Panthers rallied from a two-goal deficit to tighten the series with a 6-5 victory on Thursday night.
The Lightning scored on three of seven shots in the first period Saturday. The Panthers replaced Bobrovsky with Chris Driedger after Killorn scored on the power play and added another goal off a pass from Steven Stamkos to increase the lead to 5-1.
“It’s 3-1 after one and then they score early and they scored the fifth goal,” Quenneville said of the move to Dreidger. “Just trying to do something different was definitely the thought process on that, slow their momentum down maybe and get some excitement, but at that time a four-goal lead is rather large.”
Jonathan Huberdeau and Carter Verhaeghe had power-play goals for Florida.
Kucherov has three goals and six assists in four playoff games after missing the regular season while recovering from hip surgery performed on Dec. 29. He and Stamkos, who had two assists Saturday, have at least one point in each game of the series.
“It’s amazing what he’s been able to do the last four games, especially coming back from injury,” Gourde said of Kucherov.
The Lightning ended a four-game home losing streak in the playoffs with their first postseason win at Amalie Arena since Game 5 of the 2018 Eastern Conference final against the Washington Capitals.
“We came here to win a hockey game and we did,” Cooper said.
“We have better in us, we know that. …. We have to better with our emotions and not getting caught up with the antics that are going on in the game,” the Tampa Bay coach added. “We can be more physical, we can be a better hockey team. But I like where we’re sitting at in the series, and believe me we’ll be bringing it two nights from now.”
The Lightning haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since being swept by Columbus in the first round in 2019. The defending Stanley Cup champions were 7-0 in games following a loss during the 2020 postseason.
ON THE BRINK
The Panthers will have to win three straight against the defending champs to end the franchise’s 25-year drought without a series win.
“You have to have a short memory. You put this behind you and you go to the next one,” Florida defenseman Anton Stralman said. “We look forward to going back home and try to play our best game.”
Florida’s Keith Yandle was a healthy scratch for the second time in the series. The 34-year-old defenseman also sat out Game 3.
The Lightning have never lost a series in which they won the first two games. They’re 11-3 after holding a 2-1 advantage. On the other hand, the Panthers have never rallied to win a series after dropping the first two games.