After so many tough defeats during the middle stretch of their pre-season schedule, Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen wanted his team to end on a high note and head into the regular season with good vibes. Mission accomplished as the Panthers stormed back from an early two goal deficit to beat the Lightning 5-3 at the BB&T Center.
Florida ended the pre-season with the victory thanks to their new players but it was a player returning from injury that provided the final goals as Kris Versteeg posted the winner and the insurance goal in the victory.
"Yeah, a couple lucky ones. But, I’ll take those any day," said Versteeg on his two goals. "It always feels nice to score obviously, but that first one, you know I worked awfully hard for seven months of rehab to get that feeling again, and it feels pretty good. The win obviously feels better, but that’s something that we want to consistently do this year."
Signed to contracts within the last 48 hours, Tim Thomas, Brad Boyes and Tom Gilbert all had a hand in the win. So did off-season signings Scott Gomez and Jesse Winchester. Thomas ended the game with 19 saves while Boyes netted the first goal in the Panthers comeback and Gilbert saved a goal later.
"Well we felt like we’ve accomplished things coaching wise, I think there’s areas that we still have to tidy up and keep working on," said head coach Kevin Dineen. "But most importantly for me, you know with Vinny Viola coming in, and Doug Cifu, I just overall with that group, just our players in general, I like the vibe in the locker room, I like the temple, the tenure of our group, we’re all speaking the same language”
Saturday's pre-season game between Florida and Tampa Bay was a final tuneup for the teams and with that, looked a lot like what the Cats will put out on opening night on Thursday when they travel to Dallas to open the season at the Stars.
Continuing their run from Thursday's game in which they scored three straight to erase a 2-0 lead and win 3-2 in overtime, Tampa Bay netted the game's first two goals, jumping out to a 2-0 lead just 7:41 into the contest. First it was Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos tipping in a Martin St Louis pass past Thomas 3:45 in. Then Brett Connolly was given credit for the goal after it looked like it deflected off a Panthers defender and past Thomas.
The home team would use a run of their own to erase the visitor's lead, scoring the next three goals of the game.
Signed earlier in the day, Boyes connected on his third of the pre-season to break the Tampa scoring streak when he scored from in close on Anders Lindback less than four minutes later after Connolly's goal.
The Cats would tie the game early in the second as Gomez scored 1:19 into the period off a Panthers power play, wristing one top shelf on Lindback from the slot and Winchester would provide the lead change when he crashed the net and tapped in the puck that was lying in the crease after Lindback got a piece of Marcel Goc's blast off the rush 5:25 into the period.
"That was not good first period, but you know we regrouped, we bring a lot of veteran guys in here, guys like [Gomez], and these guys come out and settle the game down and get us back in it," said Versteeg. "You know, the tide ended up turning but a couple big saves like we said about bringing Timmy in too, he makes a couple saves and helps bring it in but that’s what preseason is for is finding your feet, and finding your chemistry with line mates. By this game in the second and third period we did that."
With the game tied at two four minutes into the period, Tampa actually had a great chance to retake the lead as the puck got by Thomas but defenseman Tom Gilbert cleared the puck from the crease.
Late in the second, defenseman Erik Gudbranson left the game after being hit into the boards from behind by Lightning forward Richard Panik. Winchester came to defend the Cats blueliner and Panik received a five minute boarding major. Also leaving the game due to injury was forward Marcel Goc. Both left with upper bodies but weren't serious.
"Both Guddy and Marcel, we held them out. That was just precautionary," said Dineen following the game. "Right now we're just airing on a side of caution, gave some major ice time for other guys as the game wore on."
Tampa would tie the game at three 2:02 into the third when St Louis sent what looked like a harmless shot on net that went far side off Thomas and the post.
A whole new game, Versteeg collected the rebound off of Tomas Kopecky's shot from the slot and fired into the wide open net with 8:38 to play and then added an empty net goal with a minute on the clock.
"It's a pre-season game but it's important," said Thomas. "There's some new guys on this team, we're looking to become a team, to get confidence in each other, confidence that we can win the game when we're up in the third period. The way things worked out, we got to prove even more than that. Not only could we win a game we had the lead but we could win the game when the other team came back and tied it up