SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Alex Wennberg scored three goals to lead the Florida Panthers past the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1 on Saturday night, keeping alive Florida’s hopes of earning home-ice advantage in the upcoming first-round playoff series between the intrastate rivals.
The Panthers (36-14-5) moved two points ahead of the Lightning (36-16-3) and into second place in the Central Division. Florida can clinch home-ice advantage if it finishes ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings after the teams meet again Monday night to end their regular seasons.
The Lightning, who failed to pick up a point for the second consecutive game after going 6-0-1 in their previous seven, need a regulation victory to finish ahead of the Panthers.
With the teams playing the first of what could be nine consecutive games against each other as they prepare for their first-ever playoff meeting, there were multiple fights and shoving matches during the game.
“You’ve got to be smart about how you’re playing,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “The score kind of went up and sometimes we went back to old-time hockey, but I thought we did a good job of staying together and doing what we had to do.”
Already without Jan Rutta (lower body), the Lightning’s defense was further depleted without Victor Hedman (lower body) and Ryan McDonagh (upper body) in the lineup.
“I don’t know. … I hope so. … We’ll see,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said when asked if the trio would be back for the playoff opener.
Wennberg’s hat trick was the second of his career — both coming this season — and gave him 16 goals. Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett each had a goal and an assist.
“Obviously this year it’s been a little crazy, but for me to come in with this new team and get a fresh start with coaches, players and all, it’s been a blast,” Wennberg said. “But there’s still a lot left in the season here, so I’m excited to be even better.”
Luke Schenn scored for Tampa Bay.
Bennett returned after missing the Panthers’ overtime win over Dallas on Monday with an upper-body issue. His 10th goal of the season came on a power play with 16:53 left in the second.
The Lightning answered 1:45 later when Schenn controlled a crossing pass from Barclay Goodrow and slid the puck through traffic past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for his second goal this season. Bobrovsky made 28 saves and improved to 19-8-2 this season.
The Panthers outshot the Lightning 40-29 as Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made 35 saves, but lost for the ninth time in 41 starts this season.
Wennberg’s second goal off an assist from Frank Vatrano with 7:07 left in the second gave Florida a multiple-goal lead for the remainder of the game.
“We’re very familiar with each other and we play a bunch of times in our division,” Schenn said. “They’ve had a great year and are pushing hard and trying to protect home ice. Now we know what kind of series this is going to be.”
NARROWING THE GAP?
The Panthers have won four of seven games this season against the reigning Stanley Cup champions with one of the Lightning’s victories coming in overtime. They have outscored the Lightning 27-24.
The game was the last in the career of longtime NHL linesman Pierre Racicot, who is retiring. Racicot officiated over 1,800 games and 10 Stanley Cup Finals as well as the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Patric Hornqvist (upper body) and Carter Verhaeghe (upper body) sat out for Florida, but Quenneville said both would have played had Saturday’s contest been a playoff game.
The teams meet again on Monday in Sunrise with the location of their subsequent playoff opener at stake.
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