TORONTO – Anyone who thought the Florida Panthers were going to win their first postseason series in 24 years without having to come from behind has clearly not been paying attention.
A franchise (and fanbase) this starved for success isn't going to reach any kind of mountaintop without having to first overcome some level of adversity.
That's why, thinking of it strictly from a non-scientific and more historical point of view, it made sense that the Panthers fell flat on their face and looked just awful in their exhibition loss to Tampa Bay last Wednesday.
With nowhere to go but up, the overlooked and disregarded franchise received the wake-up call necessary to turn the tides on their trip to Toronto and reverse course from their potential frontier to failure.
Now, there would have to be some sentiment of improvement and hope on the horizon after the deflating debut in the bubble, but not enough that it put Florida back on anybody’s radar.
Cue Game 1 of the Qualifying Round against the New York Islanders. This time the Panthers started out with much more energy and purpose, but four penalties in the game's first 23 minutes kept Florida from generating any kind of momentum. They again fell behind, allowing a first period goal on a busted coverage and another early in the second while attempting to kill a penalty.
It was at that point when things began to turn around for the Panthers. Playing a desperate brand of hockey will have that effect.
"We got better once the game went on," said Florida captain Aleksander Barkov. "The second and third periods we were good, putting a lot of pressure on them. It obviously wasn't the result we wanted, but we were really happy about our late push."
Up until that point, Florida was a disturbing minus-7 in just over four periods of bubble hockey.
One of the highest scoring teams in the NHL was held without a goal for over 100 minutes between two games at Scotiabank Arena before finally breaking through early in the third period against the Islanders.
High-quality opportunities remained extremely difficult to come by, as restricting those kinds of chances are what the Isles do best, but the Panthers appeared to finally find their footing.
As the period progressed, Florida began to resemble the up-tempo zone possession team that won a whole bunch of games back in January and went into the NHL's pause riding high.
“We pushed really hard, just didn’t find the back of the net,” Panthers All-Star winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “I thought the third period was good. The second half of the game we were a good team, we just have to keep doing that.”
Indeed, for the first time since mid-March, Quenneville's Cats were holding on to the puck, moving with speed and purpose though the neutral zone and controlling the majority of the action.
It's a brand of hockey that will win more games than not.
"We're back to where we need to be," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday, expressing a confidence that comes with over 200 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience. He knows as well as anyone that gaining momentum during a postseason series is a wave that can carry his team well beyond the Qualifying Round.
Even his mild-mannered captain exuded an air of postgame optimism despite being down 1-0 in the best-of-five.
"We're going to get better from this," Barkov stated.
BIG GAME BOB
Another contributing factor as to why the Panthers can feel confident moving forward is the play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Bob looked every part of the goalie Florida signed to a 7-year, $70 million contract last summer, making spectacular safe after spectacular save and keeping the Panthers in the game before the team finally began to kick things into gear.
"I was very happy with Bob," said Quenneville. "He was outstanding in the game for us."
Bobrovsky finding his playoff form will play a major role if Florida is going to turn around this short playoff series, but credit must also be given to the team defense that was played in front of him.
The Cats were much better about keeping traffic away from the goal crease and allowing Bob to have clear sightlines.
"The guys worked hard defensively," said Bobrovsky. "They allowed me to see the puck and managed the puck well in the defensive zone."
The difference showed in Bob’s stellar play, which was at the level that one would expect from a 31-year-old, two-time Vezina Trophy winner.
It’s something the team knows must continue, or they’ll soon be departing the Toronto bubble with quite a bit more luggage than it turned out they needed.
“For us to come out and play big in front of Bob, and for Bob to have the game that he did, gave us the best chance to win,” said Panthers defenseman Riley Stillman. “Moving forward, that’s something we really have to focus on; keeping pucks out of the middle and eliminating their chances is going to give us a really good shot.”
WINDS OF CHANGE A-BLOWING?
In the days leading up to Phase 4, a topic often brought up to Quenneville during media Zoom calls was that of making changes to the roster during a short playoff series.
Q made it clear that he would not hesitate to yank a guy out of the lineup if he felt it would help the team's chances of winning. He even went as far to say that the Panthers coaching staff may have a shorter leash than most teams.
After Saturday’s loss to the Islanders, you have to figure there will be some alterations coming to the 20-man roster selected by Quenneville and his staff prior to Game 2.
“We’ve talked about it and we’re continuing to talk about it,” he said. “We’ll see how we go into practice tomorrow.”
Lucas Wallmark, who was a surprise scratch before Game 1, should find his way back into the lineup assuming he's fit to do so. Q would only say "he's close to joining us" when asked about Wallmark's absence on Saturday.
Colton Sceviour's status for Game 2 could be murky after the grinding winger played just one shift in the third period against the Islanders.
Dominic Toninato, who slid into the third line center spot usually occupied by Wallmark, was on the ice for only 7:27 on Saturday, the fewest minutes of all Florida players. For those wondering, playing the second and third fewest minutes were Brian Boyle (9:22) and Sceviour (9:48).
Aside from Wallmark, other candidates to crack the lineup would be young forwards Aleksi Saarela and Dryden Hunt.
Both have served time under Quenneville at different points this season, allowing Q some familiarity with what to expect if he chooses to add one, or both, at some point during the series.
“We’re looking at some ideas,” Quenneville said.