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Good night, Tampa: Florida Panthers season ends in Lightning sweep

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Joe Thornton and Victor Hedman chase a loose puck during the first period of Game 4 between the Panthers and Lightning on Monday night. — AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

TAMPA — The Florida Panthers waited until Monday night to bring their very best against the Lightning in their playoff series.

It still was not good enough.

Hard to imagine the Panthers playing any better than they did in Game 4 — only goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was unbeatable.

He was the difference on Monday — and in the series.

Now, the Panthers’ best season in their history is over.

Tampa Bay, despite getting outshot and outplayed by the Panthers throughout, got a goal from Pat Maroon in front of the net and that was enough to lift the Lightning to a 2-0 win and a four-game sweep of Florida.

“I thought it was the best game we played as a 60-minute game,” coach Andrew Brunette said.

“It looked like us and I’m not sure if our backs were that far against the wall, there was no pressure, but we played like we played all year tonight. That wasn’t always the case in the other nine games. We showed flashes of it, but the 60-minute game at that pace looked like us.”

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The Panthers become the NHL’s first top-seed to be swept in a postseason series since — coincidentally — Sergei Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets upset the Lightning in 2019.

Monday, the Lightning — and Vasilevskiy — returned the favor.

The Panthers had not been shutout in their first 91 games this season but were stopped on all 49 shots they took as Vasilevskiy got his sixth shutout to end a series in his past seven tries.

The Lightning has not lost a playoff series since that sweep at the hands of the Jackets, this being its 10th consecutive series win.

Following a rough loss on Sunday, Brunette threw his line combinations and defensive pairings into a blender, looking for any kind of spark as his team faced elimination.

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The Panthers responded with the best period they had played in this series — and arguably in the playoffs.

Only thanks in great part to the play of Vasilevskiy, Florida had nothing to show for it.

“It just wasn’t enough,’’ Aaron Ekblad said. “We got our chances. We just didn’t capitalize on those scoring chances that are so dire.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow. Getting swept is tough. It hurts and it stings. No doubt about it.”

In the first period, Florida came out flying and was shooting from all over the ice.

Although Florida’s first power play chance got bogged down by Tampa Bay’s new scheme, the Panthers had a few looks on their second.

Vasilevskiy ended up with 17 saves in the first period as the Panthers outshot the Lightning 17-3 and had a 34-12 shot attempt advantage.

Still, they had nothing to show for it.

There was more of the same in the second only it looked like the Lightning took the first lead when Alex Killorn’s deflection beat Bobrovsky at 8:44.

Only the Panthers challenged, saying while the puck was in the corner it was cleared out of play by Tampa’s Ondrej Palat. After a review lasting 8:30, it was determined the puck did hit the protective netting above the glass.

The game remained scoreless until midway through the second when Nikita Kucherov scored on a wicked wristshot off a faceoff win from Anthony Cirelli.

But wait, there’s more.

Florida challenged this goal as well — and it was determined that Cirelli used the fingertips of his gloves after the faceoff win to advance the puck to Kucherov. It was ruled a handpass and that goal came off the board.

The Panthers continued to give the Lightning all it could handed, Sam Bennett being stopped on the door step by a slick glove from Vasilevskiy.

Going into the third, the game remained scoreless despite Florida dominating every metric one could imagine.

On the shot clock, the Panthers had 34 shots on goal — and 61 attempts. The Lightning blocked 16 shots in the opening 40 minutes.

Tampa Bay, playing a defensive game and just waiting on the Panthers to make a mistake, took 15 shots in the first two periods and had 27 attempts.

The Lightning finally got a goal that stuck when Maroon jumped on a bouncing puck and chopped in over Bobrovsky — the fluttering puck getting underneath the Florida goalie and rolling across the line.

Late in the game, the Panthers got a power play and threw everything they had at Vasilevskiy — even pulling Bobrovsky — but nothing went through.

Tampa Bay got its second goal of the night into an empty net as Bobrovsky ended with 23 saves.

Vasilevskiy ended with another elimination shutout of the Panthers.

Last year, Vasilevskiy beat the Panthers 4-0 in Game 6 to end the first-round series.

In this series, the Panthers scored just three goals over four games against the Lightning version of a brick wall.

Tampa Bay will now wait on the winner of the Carolina-Rangers series as it continues to chase a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship.

GR’S THREE STARS OF GAME 4

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay

2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida

3. Pat Maroon, Tampa Bay

 NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS 

LIGHTNING D. PANTHERS 4-0

END FLORIDA PANTHERS SEASON

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