Preview: Lightning, Panthers face off for third time this season
TV: FOX Sports Florida in South Florida; FOX Sports Sun in North/Central Florida
TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m.
SUNRISE, Fla. — Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who rested for just the second game this season on Saturday, will look for his ninth consecutive win Monday night when he faces the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center.
If Vasilevskiy wins, he would tie John Grahame’s franchise record set in 2005.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper made it clear that Vasilevskiy is playing at a Vezina Trophy-type level.
“If you are going to allow only two goals a night, there’s a good chance you will be in Las Vegas (for the NHL’s annual awards show) in June,” Cooper told tampabay.com.
Vasilevskiy, 23, is 9-1-0 with a 2.20 goals-against average, but he is not the only young Russian star on the team.
Right winger Nikita Kucherov, 24, leads the NHL with 12 goals and has 19 points.
Two other Russians have been impressive for Tampa Bay: 25-year-old center Vladislav Namestnikov, who has four goals and seven assists, and 19-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, a rookie who has four goals and six assists.
The Lightning are third in the league in points by defensemen, and Sergachev has taken some of the offensive pressure off of Victor Hedman.
But as well as the 9-2-1 Lightning has been playing — and they lead the Eastern Conference with 19 points — they have struggled to beat the Panthers (4-5-1) at the BB&T Center.
In fact, the Panthers beat Tampa Bay 5-4 in their home opener and have beaten the Lightning five straight times in Sunrise.
Monday night will mark the third game of a five-game homestand for Florida, which has accumulated three points so far in this stretch.
Florida is reliant on its top line of newcomer Evgenii Dadonov and holdovers Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.
Some doubted whether former KHL star Dadonov, 28, would be good enough to play on Florida’s top line, but he leads the team in overall goals (five) and power-play goals (three).
Barkov said Dadonov was “awesome” on Saturday in the Panthers’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings, picking up a goal and an assist.
“Just give him the puck, and he’ll get it in the zone,” said Barkov, one of the best two-way centers in the league. “All I have to do is go to the net.”
Dadonov and Huberdeau each have 11 points. Barkov has 10.
The Panthers, though, need to clean up some areas. They have scored eight power-play goals but have given up 10 while short-handed. Their power play is 13th in the league at 18.6 percent, yet the penalty kill is third worst in the league (74.3 percent).
Panthers rookie coach Bob Boughner has a reputation as a defensive-minded coach, but he can’t be happy that his team is allowing 36.4 shots on goal per game, the most in the league. The Panthers are also 24th in goals allowed (36).
Conversely, the Panthers are fourth in the league in shots on goal (35.8 per game) and sixth in goals scored (3.5 per game). That is a big improvement from last season, when the Panthers were 23rd in scoring (2.5 per game).
The offensive improvement has come despite losing 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault to Las Vegas in the expansion draft. The Panthers also declined to bring back Jaromir Jagr and traded Reilly Smith to Las Vegas, departures that caused concern among fans at the time.