It was one of the best playoff games I’ve seen in years.
The focus should have just been on how the two Florida teams, at long last, had played each other for the first time in the playoffs and delivered an instant classic.
But what dominated the conversation on social media was the accusation from rival fans that the Lightning had cheated the system by having Nikita Kucherov return for Game 1 of the playoffs after missing the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery.
The accusation, of course, is that the cap-challenged Bolts delayed his return until the playoffs when there is no longer a salary cap, that Tampa GM Julien BriseBois cleverly manipulated the system.
That Kucherov scored two goals in the opening game and looked like he didn’t miss a beat in his first game since last September’s Stanley Cup Final only added fuel to the fire.
The optics weren’t great. So let’s get to it.
First of all, understand that the Panthers don’t believe for a second there’s anything malicious happening here.
“No, I don’t feel there’s a circumvention,” Panthers GM Bill Zito told The Athletic. “It’s all within the rules. From our standpoint, everything is above board. He’s a good player, obviously. Julien’s a smart guy. There’s no issues with the integrity of this whatsoever.’’
That was echoed by his head coach on Tuesday.
“I’m not complaining,’’ Joel Quenneville said. “It’s the way it is. It’s one of the rules, you deal with it. He was a big part of their team last year and so not like he hasn’t been around them. So no complaints here.’’
Secondly, there’s the NHL. If the league truly felt a team was cheating the system using long-term injury provisions in an improper way, and delayed his return because of cap reasons, the NHL could actually bar that player from playing in the playoffs.
And clearly, the league looked closely at this situation.