Riding the momentum of five-goal outputs in big wins on Thursday night, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will look to continue their good play Saturday afternoon when the Sunshine State rivals square off in Tampa, Fla.
Florida returned from a tough five-game road swing that included four games in Canada and one in Seattle. The club finished 2-2-1 on the trip, earning consecutive 5-1 wins over the Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken.
But while putting that journey behind them is good news, the Panthers’ one-game stay at home proved even better because it marked the return of captain Aleksander Barkov. He was back in the lineup and had a key role in the team’s 5-1 walloping of Detroit in its first meeting with the Red Wings.
Sidelined seven games since Nov. 17 — six straight until his Thursday return — with a bout of pneumonia, the 27-year-old Barkov provided a crucial spark for Florida, which lost defenseman Radko Gudas, center Anton Lundell and right winger Patric Hornqvist to injuries on the westward trek.
Playing center on the second line with Eetu Luostarinen and Sam Reinhart, Barkov sent in a shot from the high slot. Luostarinen, the captain’s fellow Finn, deflected the shot and sent the eventual game-winner in for a 2-0 lead.
Looking fit and energetic, Barkov was up to the task against the Wings. He logged 17:12 on the ice, won 11 of 19 draws (57.9 percent), registered an assist, had two shots and finished plus-1.
More than anything, his presence seemed to lift the Panthers, who are in fifth place in the Atlantic Division — one point behind Detroit and three below the third-place Lightning.
“He just settles everything down and changes our team completely,” said Matthew Tkachuk, who had a goal and an assist. “He’s not only the best player on our team, but one of the best in the league. Getting a guy like that back is huge for us.”
Like Florida, Tampa Bay also posted a five-spot Thursday, sweeping the two-game season series from the visiting Nashville Predators with a 5-2 victory. Brayden Point scored twice, including the game-winning tally, and captain Steven Stamkos extended his point streak to a team-best 12 with two assists.
Also vital in the Lightning’s sixth win in their past eight games on home ice was the play of backup goaltender Brian Elliott.
A 16-year veteran in his second season with Tampa Bay, the 37-year-old Elliott improved to 6-1-0 this season and won his sixth straight decision. He stopped 34 of 36 shots and even added his 11th career assist on Brandon Hagel’s short-handed goal.
Elliott said his teammates were determined to rebound from Tuesday’s 4-2 bad loss to the Wings in a turnover-laden match, adding that it showed in the first period.
“I mean, we took a hard look in the mirror after last game. (It was) not the things that we wanted to do, especially in the first period,” said Elliott. “To come out flying like we did in the first there (tonight), that’s a big response. … The guys coming out and scoring two quick goals (is) a big boost for us.”
The Lightning used overtime to win the first encounter, 3-2, with the Panthers on Oct. 21 down south in Sunrise. Point scored in overtime for the game-winning goal.
–Field Level Media