Given the path that the Lightning’s first-round playoff series with the Panthers has taken, both teams had been warned by officials about crossing the line between physical, hard-nosed hockey and dirty play.
But after the Lightning’s 6-2 Game 4 win Saturday afternoon at Amalie Arena, a game that turned from intense to ugly as it went on, Lightning coach Jon Cooper was wondering what he had just watched.
“The hockey game ended about halfway through the second (period),” he said. “It turned into something much different.”
The stomach of every Lightning fan fell at the sight of star forward Nikita Kucherov, who has been the team’s heartbeat this postseason, writhing in pain on the ice midway through the third period after taking a slash to the back of the left knee from Panthers forward Anthony Duclair.
Kucherov skated off, hunched over and unable to put weight on the leg before disappearing down the tunnel as Duclair served a two-minute minor. Then later in the period, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev left the game after taking a blindsided hit into the boards from Florida forward Patric Hornqvist.
The Lightning took a 3-1 series lead with the win in front of a limited capacity Amalie Arena crowd of 9,762 and can send off the Panthers in Monday night’s Game 5 at Sunrise.
Twenty-six penalties were called, 14 in a third period that included nine on the Panthers and five 10-minute misconducts between the teams. Cooper put the onus on the officials, saying they let the game can get out of hand.
“There’s nothing wrong with the message setting and tone setting,” Cooper said. “That’s part of the game. That’s why we love it. … But let’s do it in the parameters of the game, and then there’s guys with stripes on that control that. But if it’s not controlled, stuff like this happens (Saturday) and you have superstars lying on the ice hurt. It just can be frustrating.”
The Lightning not only had to defend a lead in the third period, they had to protect themselves and battle their emotions.
“We had to weather our emotions, there’s no doubt,” Cooper said. “And when our players have been told, ‘Don’t do anything stupid. We’re going to get you’ … we don’t do anything stupid and the other team’s getting rewarded for it? I just don’t get it.
“It’s just frustrating because people are coming to watch a really intense, good hockey game. And liberties are being taken. … Don’t get me wrong. We’re not angels out there. We are far from it. But when there’s a standard set and we’re being told how things are going to be called and when it doesn’t get done, then there’s just confusion.”
Asked if the Panthers were possibly playing to injure once the score got out of hand, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said: “I think you have to ask the other team if they were out for anything else. But I thought we did a good job controlling our emotions for most of the night, but it’s the playoffs. Stuff’s going to happen. It’s about how you react, and we won the game, so that’s all that matters.”
Asked for updates on Kucherov and Sergachev, Cooper said, “Nothing. Next question.”
The second period ended with Kucherov racing toward the Florida net on a breakaway. He was pushed from behind by defenseman MacKenzie Weegar and collided hard, head-to-head, with goaltender Chris Driedger.
Both players were strewn across the ice, Kucherov on his knees and holding his head. Driedger took the worst of the collision. And Kucherov had to serve an interference penalty when the dust settled.
The Lightning killed off the penalty and extended their lead with Kucherov’s power-play goal early in the third to make it 6-2.
Kucherov had four points in the game; he also had three assists. Alex Killorn scored two goals and had two assists.
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