(Photo via NHL)
By Jake Ricker
With already a huge advantage in the series, the Lightning looked to put the Panthers on the brink of elimination with a win tonight. Back in front Lightning fans, the ball was in the team's court, and they took full advantage in grabbing a 3-0 series lead.
After taking a big hit in game two, it was uncertain if Brandon Hagel would take the ice in game three, but after taking warmups, he would take the ice and look to help the Lightning secure the win. Both teams got off to a solid start as they knew it would be crucial to winning this game. Unfortunately for the Lightning, the parade to the locker room continued as Nick Paul took a hit along the boards and had to go get repairs.
The bad news for the Panthers is Vasilevskiy was already locked in and would come up big early, making a few huge saves and keeping the Panthers off the board. The Lightning would then get their first power play of the game just as Nick Paul returned to the bench. The Lightning got a few good looks on net, but the Panthers would successfully kill off the penalty. But the Lightning did not take their foot off the gas, and just a few seconds after the penalty expired, Corey Perry made a great deflection and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead.
A few minutes later, Brandon Hagel cross-checked a Florida player from behind, sending him into the boards; this got the attention of the Panthers, who quickly came to their teammate's defense. Hagel would be given a 5-minute major, but the call was reduced to a 2-minute minor after review. This was not a good play from Hagel, no question.
The Panthers player was off-balance, closing in on the boards and moving quickly. Hagel clearly cross-checks him while looking right at his back. I do not think there was any harm intended in the hit, but Hagel needs to learn you can't check someone with both hands on the stick, and you can not do it when looking at a player's numbers. Hagel was later fined just over 3K for his actions and will not face a suspension. Luckily no one was injured, and this can be a teachable moment for Hagel, who has actually continued to get better as the playoffs have gone on.
On the ensuing power play, the Panthers were fired up and would finally capitalize on the power play to tie the game at one. This was their first power-play goal of the entirety of the playoffs, and momentum looked to be on their side. The Panthers pushed, but Vasilevskiy was a wall in the net, letting nothing else through. The Lighting would make one last push at the end of the period, and while it didn't result in a goal, it would result in a penalty that the Lighting would start in the second.
The Lighting would not be able to capitalize on the power play, but just like their first goal, they didn't take their foot off the gas. A few minutes after the power play expired, Eric Cernak fired a shot from the point that found the back of the net, giving the Lighting a 2-1 lead. Now with the lead again, the Lighting looked to hold down the fort.
The Panthers then pushed back, even ringing one off the post, but Vasilevskiy and the Lighting defense were able to hold them off. Hedman then took a penalty sending the Panthers to the power play, but they were right back to their old ways and could not capitalize on the man advantage.
The Panthers kept pushing, but it was the Lightning who would strike next as Stamkos rifled a shot from his office, extending the Lightning lead to two. The Panthers then again tried to fight back, but Vaislevskiy was still playing some of his best hockey and holding the Panthers off the broad. Late in the second, the Lightning once again took a too many men on the ice call, which has been an issue for them all postseason. The Lightning killed it off, though, and would head into the third leading 3-1.
With their backs against the wall, you would think the Panthers would put their best foot forward to try and avoid going down 3-0. But the third was Lightning. Picking up quality offensive chances shift after shift and not letting the Panthers get any sort of clean entry into the offensive zone. This was reminiscent of old Lighting hockey as they played shutdown defensive hockey after securing a two-goal lead.
The Panthers would then get a few opportunities, but they could never find the back of the net. Jan Rutta even wanted to show off his goalie skills, clearing a puck right off the goal line that nearly tickled in. The Panthers would then try and pull the goalie to get something going, but Kucherov and Stamkos both picked up empty-net goals, and the Lightning would win the game 5-1 and take a 3-0 series lead over the Panthers.
It was another great game all-around from the Lighting. Vasilevskiy played a fantastic game, only letting one in, Kucherov continued to stay hot, making play after play, and the Lightning played another full 60. The only hiccup in this game was the Hagel hit, but I have no doubt he will learn from it and won't make the same mistake again. The Lighting now have an opportunity to finish off the Panthers at home in front of their fans. If they can keep doing what they have been doing for the past three games there is no reason not to think we will be done with the series tonight. The Panthers will surely have their best hockey ahead of them, but don't let up; finish them and get ready for round 3!
Our Three Stars:
3. Stamkos (TBL)
2. Vasilevskiy (TBL)
1. Kucherov (TBL)
Media's Three Stars:
3. McDonagh (TBL)
2. Kucherov (TBL)
1. Vasilevskiy (TBL)
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