Under-performing Lightning look to avoid sweep by Panthers

The Florida Panthers are one victory away from ending their first-round Eastern Conference playoffs in as little time as possible.

The Atlantic Division champions won 5-3 Thursday night over the Tampa Bay Lightning on the state’s Gulf Coast and put themselves ahead 3-0 in the best-of-seven series.

The reigning conference champions will look to end the Sunshine State matchup Saturday afternoon in Game 4 in Tampa.

While Matthew Tkachuk’s two goals — giving him 29 points in his past 23 postseason matches — made headlines, it was Florida’s fourth line of Nick Cousins, Steven Lorentz and Kyle Okposo that was game-changing.

The trio had a goal and three assists in the victory and was also on the ice after hemming in their rivals when Brandon Montour put Florida ahead 3-2 late in the second period.

Drawing in to the lineup with second-line center Sam Bennett absent with an upper-body injury, Lorentz netted the game-winning tally after Cousins chipped a pass off a puck that circled around the offensive zone.

With just one goal in 38 outings this season, Lorentz found the net for the first time in 18 career playoff games.

“Everybody’s got to take a step forward and raise their game a little bit,” said Lorentz, who also posted an assist for his first playoff point since 2021 with the Carolina Hurricanes. “The points aside, that’s nice, but just putting that dagger in them tonight and taking that third game really means a lot. We know the job’s not finished.”

Okposo’s assist on the Montour marker was his first postseason point in eight years as a member of the New York Islanders.

The Lightning had three power plays in the first but trailed 1-0 after Tkachuk’s goal. Jon Cooper’s club had another to end the second but failed again, while Florida never found itself on the man advantage.

Across the first three games, Tampa Bay’s vaunted power-play unit, which was tops in the NHL at 28.6 percent, is 2-for-12 (16.7 percent) and has not made a dent in shifting momentum.

A goal-scorer in all three defeats, Steven Stamkos said the 0-for-4 showing was costly.

“In a game that we got that many opportunities and they didn’t, that’s probably the difference in the game,” he said.

In losing for the sixth straight time on home ice in the postseason, Cooper said a sense of dejection set in after Sam Reinhart and Montour scored to put the visitors up 3-2 after 40 minutes.

“It was tough to come out of that period down a goal,” the 12th-year Lightning coach said. “I felt we deserved a better fate. They weren’t in our end much, and the two times they were, it was a couple of seeing-eye singles that went in the net. Don’t get me wrong — two good players shooting pucks.

“(Montour’s) from 60-something feet, it was a bullet, no doubt … and that kid can shoot a puck. (Reinhart’s) through a screen and there’s nowhere to put it and he puts it somewhere. But there’s a reason he’s got north of 50 goals.

“It was probably on the two guys’ wrong sticks at the wrong time.”

The frontrunner for the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP, Nikita Kucherov has only three assists so far and performed vastly below the expectations from his amazing 144-point season.

–Field Level Media