Sergei Bobrovsky, who at 4-0-1 is off to the second-longest season-opening points streak in Florida Panthers history, has been selected to start Thursday night against the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning at Sunrise, Fla.
The Lightning, who have won six straight games, figure to still provide a test for Bobrovsky, who made 31 saves in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
“He had to make some big and timely saves,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of Bobrovsky’s performance.
Bobrovsky’s save percentage (.899) and goals-against average (3.07) numbers this season are not outstanding. But the Panthers have scored for Bobrovsky, averaging 3.6 goals in his first five starts.
But, perhaps, the tide turned on Tuesday as the Panthers scored just twice, and Bobrovsky still prevailed by coming away with his best save percentage of the season (.969).
“It was nice to be back, to play, to see the puck,” said Bobrovsky, who has evenly split 10 starts with backup Chris Driedger. “It was good to test all the tools you have.”
Against Tampa Bay last season, Bobrovsky was 1-3 with an .897 save percentage and a 3.81 GAA. And his career numbers against the Lightning are similar: 6-8-1, .885, 3.54 GAA.
Offensively, Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in assists (10) and points (14). Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe are tied for Florida’s lead in goals with six each.
The Panthers, who are chasing the first-place Lightning in the NHL’s Central Division, are off to one of their best starts in franchise history at 7-1-2.
However, there has been little margin for error for the Panthers as six of their seven wins have come by one goal.
Meanwhile, the Lightning, the reigning Stanley Cup champions based in what some are calling “Champa Bay” following the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl victory on Sunday, are likely to start Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal.
Vasilevskiy has been outstanding this season (8-1-1, .936, 1.80 GAA). He has won five straight games, allowing an average of just 1.60 goals during that span.
Against the Panthers last season, Vasilevskiy went 3-1-0, posting a .935 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA.
Besides the goalie matchup, another big factor in Thursday’s game is the Lightning offense, which is still cooking even without Nikita Kucherov, who is out for the year due to a hip injury. Kucherov led the Lightning last season in goals (33) and assists (52).
Without Kucherov, six-time All-Star and team captain Steven Stamkos has stepped up, leading the Lightning in goals with seven. He is also tied for the top spot with 14 points.
Stamkos scored two goals in Tampa Bay’s most recent game — a 6-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.
“This group knows what it takes to win,” Stamkos said. “Whether it’s a physical game, a tight-checking game or a special-teams game, I think we are well-equipped to handle all those situations.”
Indeed, when it comes to special teams, the Lightning showed their merit against the Predators on Tuesday, going 4-for-4 on the penalty kill and 3-for-5 on the power play.
“We have such balance on each line, and our attention to detail on the defensive side is huge,” Stamkos said. “I think when you go on a run like we have, you realize what works.”
–Field Level Media