LAS VEGAS – Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice might have been channeling his inner Aaron Rodgers when he told the assembled media Saturday night to “breathe.”
The Panthers had minutes earlier lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final 5-2 to the Vegas Golden Knights, giving up three goals in the third period.
Maurice, whose Florida team rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round to beat the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, knows it's way too early to hand the Stanley Cup to the Knights. And like when Rodgers told Green Bay Packers fans after a 1-2 start in 2014 to “R-E-L-A-X,” Maurice wasn't about to hit the panic button.
Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.
“The losing team talks about too many of something and the winning team talks about the fabulousness of all other things," Maurice said. “We lost the first game in the Boston series and went along and got a little better and we lost two more and got a little better.”
The Panthers had appeared to establish momentum when Anthony Duclair scored off a faceoff in the offensive zone with 10.2 seconds left in the second period, evening the game at 2-2.
But Vegas' Zach Whitecloud blasted a shot from above the slot at 6:59 of the third period to put the Knights ahead for good. Mark Stone added a goal with 6:19 left to play, and Reilly Smith scored on an empty net with 1:45 remaining to end Florida's five-game winning streak.
“There are lots of areas where we can improve on both ends of the rink,” said Eric Staal, who scored his 100th career playoff goal in the first period. “I think there are things we will look at and talk about and look forward to the next game. You get yourself off the mat and be excited for the challenge in Game 2.”
Florida showed toward the end of Game 1 it wouldn't be intimidated. The Panthers got into some scrums with the Knights, and three Florida players were handed misconduct penalties.
It was like the fight the Panthers showed in the Bruins series, and their rally from nearly sure defeat is something they can hold on to against Vegas.
“That's pretty much what we expected,” Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe said. “It's a lot of fun out there battling.”
The Panthers made the final thanks largely to the hot play of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who rescued their postseason when he came off the bench to start Game 4 against Boston. Florida lost that game, but then Bobrovsky became nearly untouchable.
He posted a .940 save percentage against Boston, saved 164 of 174 shots against Toronto and 168 of 174 against Carolina. Perhaps more impressively, the Panthers won 11 of 12 entering the Cup Final with Bobrovsky in the net.
The Knights got to him four times on 33 shots on goal.
“I played a solid game,” Bobrovsky said. “They had lots of good scoring chances.”
Like his coach, Bobrovsky wasn't about to overreact.
“It's the first game,” Bobrovsky said. “It's a long series and lots of hockey ahead of us. We play to learn and we move on.”
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