TORONTO – The good news is that it was an exhibition game.
The bad news is just about everything else.
The Florida Panthers one and only chance for a tune-up game was a blur of missed opportunities and defensive zone coverage that left something to be desired. They lost 5-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena in Downtown Toronto, a game that will be as important to remember as it will be easy to forget.
"It certainly was a wakeup call. We've got to get better in all areas," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said. "We stood around watching all day long and it wasn't fun."
Veteran forward Brian Boyle, who Florida pursued as a free agent in large part due to his extensive postseason experience, found it difficult to take anything positive from the effort.
He wasn't alone.
Florida was outshot 34-26, couldn't cash in on four power play chances, including a lengthy 5-on-3, and played with very little cohesion in the defensive zone.
Across the board, it was about the opposite of what the Panthers set out to do against Tampa.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Boyle said. “A loss is a loss, but I don’t think there’s one area of our game we can be okay with.”
When Boyle takes the ice on Saturday for Game 1 of the Qualifying Round against the New York Islanders, it will be his 115th career playoff game. He's skated in each of the past ten postseasons, a stretch that includes back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final.
If anyone knows what it takes to succeed during the playoffs, it's him.
"The intensity is only going to ramp up, so we have an opportunity to learn our lesson and a couple of days before (Game 1), so we have to put that time to good use," Boyle said.
At the end of the day, the 35-year-old Boyle knows that a lot can change from one game to another.
Even with the awful result on Wednesday, it hasn't cost the Panthers a single inch in the Qualifying Round. Everything they want to achieve is still right there, ripe for the taking.
"I think we're all pretty excited," Boyle said. "We have a great opportunity here."
That may be true, but time is running out to find the strong possession, tight checking game that Florida needs to play in order take advantage of that opportunity and find success in the postseason, something that has eluded the franchise since the Panthers' improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.
That's why there are guys like Boyle (and Brett Connolly, and Noel Acciari, and Anton Stralman) that were brought into Florida's locker room this season, to keep the focus in the right place and the moral where it needs to be.
"We need people like that around here," Quenneville said of Boyle. "His intangibles are really effective for us. He brings that leadership and that dimension of hey, we can't be happy with the position we're in."
Looking up and down the Panthers bench late in Wednesday's exhibition loss, there were a lot of heated expressions on the faces of the Florida players, and of course, their head coach.
But Quenneville, who has 215 games of postseason coaching experience under his belt, understands that even 5-0 losses can produce some useful elements of inspiration.
"I always find that teams respond when they're angry," said Q. "They're not happy about, whether it was the performance, the results, the position that they're in, there are a lot of different factors you can say that get you motivated.
"That one, if that doesn't get you excited, you're in trouble."
WEEGAR SKIPS GAME
Heading into Wednesday’s exhibition match against the Lighting, Quenneville had already said that rearguard Aaron Ekblad would not be playing.
His defensive partner, MacKenzie Weegar, also didn't play, which came as a surprise considering the 26-year-old has not missed a practice since the beginning of Phase 3.
Quenneville didn’t reveal much on the postgame Zoom call when asked about Weegar’s current status.
"We'll see on Weegs," he said.
Stepping into the lineup against Tampa Bay were Josh Brown and Brady Keeper, both seeing a decent amount of ice time as Quenneville kept the lines and pairings rollings despite the lopsided score.
Keeper was also slotted into Ekblad's usual spot running the point on Florida's second power play unit, showing some of the smooth skating and puck possession skills that he had been exhibiting in Springfield with Florida's AHL affiliate.
MATHESON’S NIGHTMARE AFTERNOON
Defenseman Mike Matheson may have played himself out of a roster spot in Saturday's Qualifying Round opener against the Isles.
Matheson was on the ice for all five of Tampa Bay's goals, finishing the game with a minus-4 rating.
He was caught flat-footed on several occasions, which is confounding as Matheson's skating ability has always been one of the most consistent elements to his game.
Quenneville has said multiple times over the past few weeks that in a short series, there will be no hesitation to make any moves needed to improve the team.
Florida will hold practices on Thursday and Friday, presumably at the Ford Performance Centre.
On Saturday comes Game 1 of the best-of-five Qualifying Round series against the New York Islanders at Scotiabank Arena.
Puck drops on the Panthers’ postseason party at 4 p.m.