TAMPA — As the Florida Panthers exited the handshake line with the Tampa Bay Lightning, they found themselves in a very similar situation as the twice-defending Stanley Cup Champions were back in 2019.
After tying the NHL record for most wins in NHL history with 62, the Lightning found themselves swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Tampa Bay led the league in goals (319) that year and had the league’s best power play (28.2 percent) but was held to just eight goals by Columbus in a shocking four-game sweep.
Sound a little familiar?
After that series, Lightning coach Jon Cooper took stock of the situation.
He reportedly gathered team leaders who had advocated for the wide-open style and basically told them: We played the game your way, now we’re going to play it my way.
The Lightning has been on a historic run ever since.
Tampa Bay has not only won the Stanley Cup championship the past two summers, it is running toward a third after sweeping the Panthers out of the second round with a 2-0 win on Monday night.
The Lightning are now in the Eastern Conference final, awaiting the winner of the Rangers-Carolina series as it is the first team to reach the NHL final four in six of eight years since the Avalanche did it upon arriving in Denver.
Tampa Bay has now won 10 straight playoff series — only the third NHL team to ever do that and the first since the four-time champion Islanders did so.
This is a historic run, indeed.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are left to figure out what is next after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Lightning for the second consecutive year.
Florida scored the most goals since the 1995-96 season (337) and won the Presidents’ Trophy with a 58-18-6 record, but come playoff time, it was simply not enough.
While they squeaked past the first round with a six-game victory over the Washington Capitals, red flags popped up.
Florida relied over on second-chance opportunities and using their speed to penetrate the slot and that just does not happen come playoff time.
It was a big reason as why the Panthers finished 1-31 on the power play in the postseason.
The Lightning blocked 77 Panthers shots as Florida continued to struggle to generate high-danger chances throughout the series.
Andrei Vasilevskiy finished them off with what was the best save percentage from a goalie who started all games of a playoff series in NHL history with a .980.
“They’re Stanley Cup Champions for a reason,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “The evolution of how they were a high-flying kind of offensive team and they found a recipe of how to win and they stuck with it.
“We aspire to be them and this is another learning experience for us and we need to be better.”
A major difference as to why the Panthers did not win this series was because their star players did not show that same fight as the likes of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Stamkos only had four points (two goals) but did a lot of other things to keep the Panthers off balance. Kucherov had seven points and was a killer night after night.
Meanwhile, Florida’s Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Claude Giroux were all held without goals by Tampa Bay’s suffocating defense.
“They play their way, we play our way, but I think what we’re learning is all of the little things they do to win hockey games,” Brunette said. “How they block shots, how they have a guy like (Stamkos) who has scored 60 goals in this league and he’s playing defense, he’s blocking shots, and he’s willing his team to win.
“They’re all like that and that’s the reason they won.”
Stamkos and Kucherov led the way with the Lightning’s depth scorers following in a series where star forward Brayden Point did not play a single minute — and that may be what separates Tampa Bay from Florida right now.
The Lightning has a group that is seasoned for playoff hockey and know what it takes and the Panthers rode fast-paced regular season hockey to the top of the standings, just as the Lightning did in 2019.
Meanwhile, for Florida’s top stars, it appeared the moment was too big for them.
“Nervousness” was a term that was thrown around a lot at the beginning of their first-round series with the Capitals when they found themselves down 2-1.
As they began their first second-round series since 1996, it seemed that nervousness may very well still have been there.
Their passes weren’t as crisp and seamless as Tampa’s and it caused a lot of turnovers to come the other way which led to quality Lightning chances.
Florida was very hesitant to shoot, especially on the power play, passing up on Grade-A opportunities to make an extra pass and continue to look for the best possible chance.
That was a luxury they had during the regular season not afforded in the playoffs.
Brunette mentioned time after time that the team was “getting too cute” in the offensive zone with the number of extra passes they made, but it was to no avail.
Florida watched as their high-paced offense was stifled by a structured defensive system and only time will tell if they make adjustments towards that style of play.