Panthers’ prolific offense has vanished. Now they’re on brink of getting swept in Tampa

·6 min read

By the end of the Florida Panthers’ second power play, the chants inside Amalie Arena were deafening.

“Vasy! Vasy!” the crowd of 19,092 shouted while Andrei Vasilevskiy — the anchor of two straight Tampa Bay Lightning championships — denied chance after chance from the usually high-powered Panthers in the second period.

Whether it has been mostly because of Vasilevskiy and the Lightning or because of something going wrong for Florida, those high-flying Panthers from the regular season have gone missing in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs and now Florida is on the verge of a second-round exit after a 5-1 loss Sunday in Tampa.

“It’s tough not to get frustrated,” forward Sam Reinhart said.

The Panthers trail 3-0 in their second round series and their season — which has yielded their first Presidents’ Trophy ever and their first win in a postseason series since 1996 — could be over as soon as Monday if Tampa Bay can finish off the sweep in Game 4.

Either way, the odds are stacked against Florida. Only four teams in NHL history have rallied to win a best-of-7 series after falling behind 3-0 and only three have ever been swept out of the Stanley Cup playoffs after finishing the regular season with the league’s best record.

The culprit has been — improbably — its offense.

There is no one answer as to what has happened. The stars have been silent -- Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau Aleksander Barkov, Claude Giroux and MacKenzie Weegar have combined for just one goal, and three points and only one point during 5-on-5 play. The number of quality chances have faded -- the Panthers are averaging fewer shots, shots on goal, scoring chances and high-danger chances than they did in the regular season. Only two players, winger Anthony Duclair and defenseman Brandon Montour, have a positive plus-minus -- it has been a collective power outage, up and down the roster.

“Obviously, you get frustrated,” said Huberdeau, who set an NHL record for assists by a left wing in the regular season and has just two in this series. “You try to do a little too much maybe in this situation. It’s on us. I’ve got to give more. I’ve got to be better, obviously. I think every guy, we need to be a bit better.”

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On Sunday, it started with Vasilevskiy, who entered the weekend with a .972 save percentage in Round 2 and was even better in Game 3, stopping 34 of 35 shots he faced, including all 28 during 5-on-5 play and four during a crucial second-period power play, robbing Florida of multiple potential game-tying goals.

Interim coach Andrew Brunette most significant change to its power play this weekend, bumping Giroux down to the second unit and promoting right wing Patric Hornqvist, and it worked. The Panthers scored just 38 seconds into their first power play when forward Reinhart, who got to drop back into the slot with Hornqvist occupying the net-front spot, fired a wrist shot past Vasilevskiy with 3:53 left in the first period.

Florida’s second power play created eight total shots, four shots on goal and two scoring chances, and Vasilevskiy — and the Lightning — denied every one. The power play started with a point shot by Barkov and Lightning forward Nick Paul blocked it. The next look came from Aaron Ekblad and Vasilevskiy slid to his right to stuff the star defenseman. After three more blocks by Tampa Bay, Hornqvist got two chances on the doorstep and Vasilevskiy swallowed both, then saved one final look from Barkov to kill of the penalty.

There was still one more chance for Florida, though. A few seconds after the power play ended, Huberdeau got the puck in the right faceoff circle with an open net to shoot in front of him and he couldn’t bury it. Tampa Bay defenseman McDonagh clipped the puck with his tick to send it flying high and wide of the net.

Less than two minutes later, superstar forward Steven Stamkos scored on a one-timer and the Lightning doubled its lead to 3-1. Even for the so-called “Comeback Cats,” this swing — against the winner of the last two Stanley Cups — was too much to overcome.

“We haven’t found that extra gear from behind that we’ve found all year,” Brunette said.

For most of the series, the difference has been marginal. In Game 1, Tampa Bay outshot the the Panthers, 36-34, and led by just one goal with less than five minutes left before scoring twice on the power play down the stretch to win by three. In Game 2, Florida outshot the Lightning, 36-28, and lost on a goal with 3.8 seconds left.

The Panthers has now fallen behind in seven straight games. In three of those, they were able to rally past the Washington Capitals to win their opening-round series in six games. Another three have come in Round 2 and the Cup-tested Lightning hasn’t let Florida — which tied an NHL record with 29 come-from-behind wins in the regular season — do its usual late-game damage. Tampa Bay has now outscored the Panthers, 6-0, in third periods, albeit with the help of two empty-net goals Sunday.

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The final periods have been when the marginal differences between the two teams have been most glaring and the Lightning has the advantage.

So far in this series, Tampa Bay has an 11-6 edge in rebounds created and a 59-35 edge in blocked shots.

In a series with two teams separated by just five shots and 11 chances, these are the marginal plays the Lightning is making.

“They know what they’re doing and they’re willing themselves,” Brunette said. “They have more will and more desire than we do, and it shows, probably, when you watch the game shift after shift.”

It explains how Tampa Bay is on the brink of a third straight trip to the final four and maybe why Florida’s offense has disappeared, too.

If it’s due to structure and positioning, the Panthers might be out of time to save their season. If it’s all about urgency, they’ll have no excuse not to have some Monday.

“We’re a good team when our backs are against the wall and it looks bleak, so hopefully we can find some energy, and some passion and some joy out of that,” Brunette said. “It’s more frustration than joy right now.”

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) watches his shot get past Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for a goal during the second period in Game 3 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. Looking on is Panthers’ Claude Giroux (28). (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) watches his shot get past Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for a goal during the second period in Game 3 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. Looking on is Panthers’ Claude Giroux (28). (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Up next

Florida’s season will be on the line Monday at 7 p.m. when they stay on the road for Game 4 against the Lightning. Brunette said Saturday he expects star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to start again, even with the back-to-back set.

No team has rallied from a 3-0 series deficit since the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Those Kings went on to win the championship.

The Panthers have not reached the NHL Conference Finals since 1996, when they advanced to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals in only their third season of existence. This is the deepest in the playoffs Florida has been since then.

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