As the Tampa Bay Lightning was rolling through the first quarter of the 2020-21 season it looked as though they picked up right where they left off from the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although they had lost Nikita Kucherov to hip surgery this offseason and moved Cedric Paquette to make cap space, the Lightning came charging out to a 9-2-1 record in their first 12 games. Even during the two games earlier this season in which they lost — 5-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets and 1-0 in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes — the Lightning never felt out of the fight late in those contests.
For the first time this season, the Lightning seemed overmatched when they faced the Florida Panthers in the first of a three-game series. The Panthers, who are off to one of the best starts in their franchise’s history at 8-1-2 in 11 games, were able to shut down the speed of the Lightning and dictate the pace of play for most of the game. While it was expected that the Lightning would have the occasional off-night and would certainly lose some games during this 56-game season, how they bounce back in the next two games will be a true test of the character of this year’s team.
The Lightning was without Steven Stamkos in Thursday night’s game against the Panthers and the Bolt’s top-two lines looked lost without their captain on the ice. Sergei Bobrovsky only faced 21 shots in one of his easier outings on the season as the Lightning were unable to keep any significant pressure in the Panthers’ zone. Jon Cooper tried multiple combinations of the top-six forwards to ignite a comeback but could not seem to find the answer to Florida’s unrelenting defense.
While Stamkos was held out of the game Thursday due to a lower-body injury, reports came out on Friday that he had been placed on the COVID-19 protocol list due to a likely false-positive test. This news could end up being a blessing in disguise for the Lightning — if Stamkos can produce negative COVID tests then he will likely be able to return to the team sooner rather than later.
One of the bright spots from the first meeting against the Panthers was the Lightning power-play unit’s ability to produce without Stamkos in the lineup. Brayden Point stepped up and converted two of the Lightning’s three power-play opportunities on the night. However, teams will quickly adapt to focus on shutting down Point on the man-advantage without the threat of a Stamkos one-timer from the left circle. Tampa has proven that they can continue to win without Stamkos in the past but, without Kucherov to pick up his slack, the task will be much harder this time should he miss additional games.
Whenever the Lightning lose 5-2, they also lose key centermen in the process. Against the Blue Jackets, the Lightning lost fourth-line center, Mitchell Stephens , to a lower-body injury. On Thursday Anthony Cirelli left midway through the third period and did not return to the ice. While the status of Cirelli’s injury is still unknown, losing him for any amount of time will be a huge blow to the Bolts.
Not only has Cirelli been a force at even strength for the Lightning — his hot start making the case to be included as a potential Selke Trophy Finalist — it is his shutdown ability in the defensive zone that has made him a staple on the penalty kill. The Panthers currently have the second-best power play in the NHL — converting at a 36.7% rate — and while the Lightning was able to kill off two of the three power plays the Panthers had on Thursday night, it was Aaron Ekblad’s tally on the man-advantage that seemed to put the game out of reach.
Without Cirelli and Stamkos in the lineup, the pressure will fall to Point to carry this team forward. The Lightning has proven many times that they can have the next man step up and fill in where needed — Mathieu Joseph has exceeded in his role as a plug-in type of player this season — but losing two key players may prove to be harder to do than before. However, how the Lightning responds to the Panthers over the next two games will determine the true character of this team when faced with adversity.