SUNRISE, Fla. – A bounce off a Panther. A bounce off a post.
The Tampa Bay Lightning got two big breaks, and they’re going home in full control of their matchup against the Florida Panthers.
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 32 shots, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat had first-period goals and the Lightning beat the Panthers 3-1 on Tuesday night to take a 2-0 lead in their Central Division first-round playoff series.
“We’ve got a lot of work left to do,” Tampa Bay’s David Savard said.
True, but the odds seem to be in his team’s favor. It’s the seventh time that the Lightning have won the first two games a series, the third time doing so on the road. They’ve never lost one of those matchups, and will look to put Florida on the brink of elimination when the series shifts to Tampa on Thursday night.
Yanni Gourde added an empty-netter off a giveaway with 1:25 remaining for the Lightning. Tampa Bay improved to 28-0-0 this season — including both games of this series — when leading after two periods, and have won 41 such games going back to last season and their run to the Stanley Cup.
“That was more indicative of the way we can play,” Stamkos said.
Mason Marchment had the goal for Florida, which dropped consecutive games on home ice for only the second time this season.
Florida went with Chris Driedger in net after playing Sergei Bobrovsky in Sunday’s series-opening 5-4 loss. Driedger, on his 27th birthday and appearing in his first postseason game since 2014 when he was in major junior hockey, playing for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. He stopped 26 shots.
“He kept us in the game and gave us a chance,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said.
The fortunate bounces staked Tampa Bay to a 2-0 lead in the opening period.
Stamkos, who missed the final 16 games of the regular season, got his third point of the series and first goal since April 8 when he was credited with the opening score. Tampa Bay broke out on a play where Florida’s Markus Nutivaara fell down, and Stamkos wound up being part of a 2-on-1 in front of the Panthers net.
Alex Killorn fed a pass across the slot to Stamkos, Driedger slid to his right, and Stamkos tried to send the puck back to Killorn. It never got there, nor did it have to; sliding Florida defenseman Anton Stralman deflected the puck into the net for a 1-0 Lightning lead.
Palat made it 2-0 later in the first, the lucky recipient of a puck that just happened to come his way. Brayden Point tried to beat Driedger over the left shoulder; his shot hit the post and caromed to Palat, who had open twine to shoot at for the second goal.
“We would have liked to get a couple bounces,” Driedger said. “We’re due for some.”
Marchment got free in the slot and tipped home a pass from Carter Verhaeghe to get Florida on the board with 5:39 left in the second.
But the Panthers never got the equalizer, and Gourde’s easy one sealed matters for the Lightning.
The Panthers have never won a series after dropping the first two games, falling on three previous occasions — and now need to win four out of five against the reigning Stanley Cup champions if this will be the season in which it ends a 25-year postseason series win drought.
“It’s tough billing,” Quenneville said. “Let’s go. Let’s turn the momentum as quickly as we can.”
Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores has been to a few games this season and helped the Panthers out a couple ways Tuesday night, first by taping a pregame hype video for the crowd and then by waving a rally towel as fans roared in the second period. Marchment’s goal came about 3 minutes later.
Tampa Bay was 21-7-0 at home this season, but Florida was the only team to beat the Lightning twice in their rink.
Florida played without Sam Bennett, suspended for Game 2 by the NHL because of his boarding penalty against Tampa Bay’s Blake Coleman on Sunday night.
It was the 50th playoff game in Florida’s franchise history. The Panthers went 9-3 in their first 12 postseason contests. They’re 10-28 since.