TAMPA — The Florida Panthers may have enjoyed the most successful season in their history but it suddenly sounds hollow to say such things today.
These Panthers, easily the best team the franchise has ever put on ice, are on the verge of a quick exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
To rub salt in that wound, it will very likely be the Tampa Bay Lightning who kick the Panthers out of the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
To make it sting even worse, Tampa Bay has the brooms out.
On Sunday, the Lightning did it to the Panthers again, scoring twice in the second period en route to a 5-1 win in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series.
The Lightning can end Florida’s season with a win on Monday night; Game 4 is set for 7 p.m. and Tampa Bay is looking to move on and continue its roll toward a third consecutive kick at the Cup.
For the Panthers, the hope was to come into Tampa and get things back on track.
Florida played a solid game, had plenty of chances but the Lightning were simply the better team.
“We fall behind, they’re a tough team to come back on,’’ coach Andrew Brunette said.
”And we kind of fell behind here this whole series and we haven’t found that extra gear from behind, which we found all year. But you have to play one game to bring it home and keep it alive.”
Even with a win Sunday, Florida would have continued to trail in the series but at least it would be back in it.
Now the Panthers are on the brink of elimination.
Tampa Bay, playing in front of a highly-charged sellout crowd, once again took the initial lead, getting a deflection goal from Corey Perry not long after Florida killed off its first penalty.
The Panthers tied it up as its scoreless power play finally broke their streak when Sam Reinhart pounded a Jonathan Huberdeau pass past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That was about all Vasilevskiy was going to give up.
Tampa Bay made it 2-1 in the second on a rifle shot from Erik Cernak that zipped over Sergei Bobrovsky’s outstretched glove.
The Panthers then went back on the power play and had perhaps their best chances of the game — went couldn’t get a thing past Vasilevskiy.
Huberdeau had a point-blank shot knocked out of the air by defenseman Ryan McDonagh — an almost certain goal which would have changed the complexion of the game.
That’s because Tampa Bay took its biggest lead since late in Game 1, Steven Stamkos finding himself all alone sliding into the left circle — his favorite place on the ice — where he one-timed a perfect Nikita Kucherov pass midway through the period.
Florida continued to get chances, but Vasilevskiy kept things right where they were.
He also had some luck; the Panthers had a number of loose pucks — including one from Maxim Maxim with five minutes left — that couldn’t get all the way across.
“We’re down 3-0, so obviously not happy with the results,’’ Huberdeau said.
“But we’re playing probably the best goalie. He’s making some saves. We’re having chances. We’re not getting bounces, too, right now. Credit to them, too, they’re blocking every shot. They’re a good team. You can see why they won two Stanley Cups. They’re playing that way and I think we just give a little bit more, obviously.”
Florida pulled Bobrovsky with 4:45 remaining and Sasha Barkov did a nice job of blocking a Nick Paul shot to keep it a two-goal game. But with 3:54 remaining, Kucherov got hold of the puck in the Florida zone — with an empty net in front of him.
Yeah, three-goal game.
Stamkos got himself a second goal as well with 2:09 remaining.
The Panthers had always planned to fly home on Monday night.
Will it be for Game on Wednesday or will it be for the summer?
Things certainly are not looking good for the Panthers right now.
GR’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay
2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay
3. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING (TBL leads 3-0)
- Game 4: Monday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa
- TV/Streaming: TNT
- Postgame: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING
- Regular season series — Tied 2-2: Florida 4, @Lightning 1 (Oct. 19); @Lightning 3, Florida 2 OT (Nov. 13); @Florida 9, Lightning 3 (Dec 30); Tampa Bay 8, @Florida 4 (April 24).
- All-time regular season series: Panthers lead 73-49-18, 10 ties
- Playoff history: Second meeting; Tampa Bay d. Florida 4-2 in R1, 2021
- Round 1: Florida d. Washington 4-2; Tampa Bay d. Toronto 4-3
- Full schedule — Game 1: Tampa Bay 4, @Florida 1; Game 2: Tampa Bay 2, @Florida 1; Game 3: @Tampa Bay 5, Florida 1; Game 4: Florida at Tampa Bay, Monday, 7 (TNT); Game 5*: Tampa Bay at Florida, Wednesday, May 25 (Time, TV TBA); Game 6*: Florida at Tampa Bay Lightning, Friday, May 27 (Time, TV TBA); Game 7*: Tampa Bay at Florida, Sunday, May 29 (Time, TV TBA). (*) — If necessary.