No excuse or consolation: Panthers swept out of playoffs in 2-0 loss a crushing way to end | Opinion

·5 min read
Chris O'Meara/AP

Where do you look for belief when there doesn’t seem to be any? How do you claim confidence when the words feel hollow even as they leave your lips? Where do you find resilience when the world is laughing at your chances?

When you know even your most loyal fans have likely resigned themselves to reality, not allowing hope in, so that the inevitable might hurt a little less?

This was the mountain facing the humbled, shell-shocked, embarrassed Florida Panthers entering Game 4 down 3-0 in Tampa Monday night, staring at elimination, needing to somehow win four in a row.

And needing to do it against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the two-time reigning NHL champions and their nemesis, against whom the Cats had managed a meager one goal in each of three losses.

“It looks bleak,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette had admitted.

Bleak might have been the glass half full.

In league history only four hockey teams of 201 down 3-0 in the playoffs, or 2 percent,. have climbed that mountain looming over the Panthers.

It could have been the beginning of a fairy tale, this.

Instead it was real life.

The Panthers lost valiantly, if that is any consolation. Which it isn’t.

They lost 2-0 on a goal with 13:44 to play that slipped between Sergei Bobrovsky’s legs and wobbled in off his right skate. Then on an open-net goal in the last seconds, when a brief, closing 6-on-4 power play by Florida failed to produce a miracle.

Florida dominated in chances, slamming 49 shots at Tampa’s brick wall named Andrei Vasilevskiy, but none past him. The Cats played their best game of this series, by a lot.

And still they head home without another home game, without more season.

And it sours the whole damned thing.

Not because this Panthers season didn’t end with champagne in the Stanley Cup.

Not even because it ended in the second round of the playoffs.

But that it ended like this.

In a four-game sweep.

With a high-powered offense turned powerless.

The NHL President’s Trophy for best record and most regular season points. Highest-scoring team the NHL has seen in 26 years. A No. 1 overall playoff seed.

Now: A forever stain on the gold-guilded season for the way it ended in such disappointment.

Yes, Florida erased a long drought by winning its first playoff series since the 1996 run to the Stanley Cup.

Not enough.

The bar was higher.

This team set it.

This was the high-octane attack that averaged 4.11 goals per game.

And then this was the team that scored 1, 1, 1 and 0 goals in the last four games.

Then this was the team that was an historically bad 1-for-31 on power plays in the postseason.

“Really disappointed with my effort on the power play,” Brunette admitted. “That one I’ll kick myself all summer. That’s already caused me sleepless nights.”

And then this was the team whose two biggest stars, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, simply did not rise and take command when the stage was biggest, after such wonderful regular seasons for both.

“I could have played a lot better,” said Barkov.

The 0-0 score through two periods did not reward Florida’s better of play -- including a 34-15 domination in shots on goal.

It was the Cats’ best, most intense effort of the series, one that begged one to wonder where this showing had been before. It should not have taken facing-elimination-desperation to bring that out in the Panthers.

“Yeah, for sure,” Brunette agreed.

Tampa scored two apparent goals in the second period that both were disallowed, but if you say that was Florida catching two big breaks, consider that both non-goals merited disallowing.

The first, 11:16 into the period, required a near-9-minute review of the Cats bench challenge before officials rightly ruled a pass just before the ‘goal’ had gone into the high side netting above the glass, which should have been a play stoppage.

The second faux goal, two minutes later, was disallowed because the faceoff win that led to the ‘goal’ found Anthony Cirelli using his right glove to advance the puck -- what should have been another game stoppage.

The twice-denied partisan home fans nevertheless engaged in a two-syllable chant that began with the word “bull,” not particularly inventive, but an escalation and somewhat welcome alternative to the usual “ref, you suck” admonishment.

By the time Tampa scored the goal that did count, the only one needed, it seemed such a cruel stab into the Panthers but one perfectly fitting of the series, and likely deserved.

“Just need to get one win,” Huberdeau had said.

“We haven’t found that extra gear which we found all year,” said the interim coach Brunette, who now waits to see if the job is still his after this. He had talked about finding a way to win one game “and bring it home and keep it alive.”

They spent four games trying to find that way, and getting lost.

Trying to solve Tampa’s defense, and not doing it.

There may be a time when this Panthers season, best in franchise history by most measures, will be looked back upon for all the good in it.

First, it will take some getting over the way it ended so brutally, and the opportunity left on the ice.

This will hurt for awhile.

And it should.

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