By Bill Whitehead
By both mediocre teams’ standards, the season finale between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning likely turned out for the best, with each club getting the most it could out of the outcome, a 5-3 win for the visiting Cats, who rallied twice in a strong performance.
For Florida, beating its in-state rival is always a good thing, and this season’s games with the Bolts have been particularly frustrating. The Panthers battled back from down 2-0 and 3-2 on Saturday night, scoring three unanswered goals to end the season 2-2-1 against the Lightning. But it could have been much better than that if Florida had taken care of business in its only two meetings with the Bolts in South Florida.
On Feb. 16 at BB&T Center, Florida appeared to be on the way to a 5-4 win but couldn’t clear the puck out of its zone — a season-long problem that hounded the team — with Tampa’s net empty. Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left in regulation, and Benoit Pouliot tallied the game-winner in overtime.
A month later at home, the Cats turned in easily its most frustrating performance of the season in another loss — a defeat that truly defined the team’s shortcomings in the shortened season. Florida completely outhustled and outshot Tampa for the first 40 minutes, spending almost the entire time in front of Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback. Despite holding a 30-6 shot advantage after two periods and its opponent to a season-low 13, Florida dropped a 3-2 decision.
The Panthers (15-27-6) exacted a little revenge at the Tampa Times Forum, leaving the Cats fans who made the trip feeling a little better about the drive up I-75. The team showed a resilience that has been absent most of 2013, plus a snapshot (key word there) of its skill. Nick Bjugstad scored the first goal of his career. Alex Petrovic looked like a true NHL blueliner. T.J. Brennan looked like he had played with the Cats all year. Drew Shore and Quinton Howden were aggressive and had scoring chances. Eric Selleck scored his first NHL point by stealing the puck from Vincent Lecavalier in the third period and speeding toward Lindback, resulting in a tying goal by Scottie Upshall. And the prized rookie Jonathan Huberdeau strengthened his bid in his quest to win the Calder Trophy with three assists, including one on the empty-net goal by Marcel Goc that shut out the lights on Tampa’s season that started so promisingly but spiraled out of control.
The Lightning (18-26-4) started 6-1 and pulled out wins early in dramatic fashion, appearing to be a playoff team, but they only won 12 more times, fired mad genius coach Guy Boucher, traded away fan-favorite Calder candidate Cory Conacher for yet another goalie (Ben Bishop) and ended the season with a fizzle. This despite having flashy Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and sharpshooter Steven Stamkos, who both had fantastic campaigns.
More significantly, though, for the Bolts is that it didn’t completely blow the season by beating Florida to close the year. In fact, St. Louis’ possible game-tying shot with the Tampa net empty that rang off the iron before Goc’s goal may have been a godsend. A win or overtime loss would have moved Tampa out of the top three draft spots (a club outside the top three could also do that Monday night by winning the draft lottery, with the Lightning then drafting fourth).
The top three selections in the draft, in some order, should be defenseman Seth Jones, center Nathan MacKinnon and left winger Jonathan Drouin. Unless it wins the lottery or makes a trade, Tampa won’t get Jones, which would be a huge asset to a club bereft of defense, but GM Steve Yzerman could walk away with MacKinnon or Drouin when he leaves the podium in Newark on June 30. That wouldn’t have happened if the Bolts had beaten Florida or even lost in overtime or a shootout if St. Louis had scored in the last 90 seconds.
Both teams’ futures look good. No team in the NHL showcased more top-shelf, highly drafted talent than Florida this year. Kris Versteeg likely won’t be healthy enough to open next season, but his and Sean Bergenheim’s return, plus some roster tightening — and maybe a deal or two at the draft — and the Cats should be a far better team next year. Adding one of the three top picks or trade out of the top spot for an impact player will just make them stronger.
The Lightning, meanwhile, will bring back all that offensive wizardry and a coach who has produced winning teams, but until it strengthens its blue line and finds a legit No. 1 goalie, Tampa won’t be a serious postseason contender. Both Lindback and Bishop have been backups during their careers. With Nashville having Pekke Rinne, who wasn’t going to be beaten out by Lindback, and Ottawa icing ex-Panther Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, both Lindback and Bishop were expendable. One of the tall goalies will have to step up and win the job in camp, not in a season-long tryout each night.
It was locker cleanout day on Sunday, but next season likely can’t get here soon enough for both teams.