Aaron Ekblad stared at the scoreboard high above the ice at Amalie Arena and tried to look for an answer to what had just happened.
Finally, one of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s shots bounced around enough around the net for the Lightning to do what they do best — and what they have done all throughout this second-round series. Pat Maroon managed to knock a rebound out of the sky and into the net, and the end was finally in sight for these Panthers. It was hard for any of them to believe it.
The goal was enough for Tampa Bay to win 2-0 in Tampa and sweep Florida out of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs with a 4-0 series victory.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Ekblad said. “Getting swept is tough. It hurts. It stings. There’s no doubt about it.”
With their season on the line, the Panthers got shut out for the first first time all year. Once again, their season is over too early. This time, it’s because of the massive expectations they took into the Stanley Cup playoffs and, in particular, this first second-round series in more than two decades.
Their first trip to Round 2 since the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs lasted just four games and they go into the offseason trying to figure out what, again, what went wrong in a postseason showdown with their in-state rival, which is now just eight wins away from winning a third straight Stanley Cup.
It’s the second straight year the Lightning has ended the Florida’s season — they’d never met in the postseason before Tampa Bay won in six games first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs — and it brings a mostly magical season to a devastating conclusion. The Panthers rewrote their franchise record book all year long and, at the same time, underachieved.
It is unarguably one of the two best seasons in franchise history and also perhaps the most frustrating ending the team has ever had. They saw breakthrough seasons from stars like Jonathan Huberdeau and Sergei Bobrovsky, and also saw those stars get outplayed by their counterparts. Florida is in position to contend for years to come with most of the roster locked up on multi-year deals, but it also yet to do much of anything of significance in the Cup playoffs.
For about a week, the Panthers’ first-round win against the Washington Capitals counted as a real moment. Florida hadn’t won a postseason series in 26 years before it finished off the Capitals in six games May 13 and the Panthers, especially the stars who have been part of the franchise for close to a decade, felt a mountain of frustrations and expectations lift from their shoulders.
The joy and relief was short lived. Florida lost Game 1 to the Lightning on Tuesday at home, then Game 2 on a game-winning goal with 3.8 seconds left Thursday. After getting two days to regroup, the Panthers responded with their most lopsided loss of the series Sunday and a season-ending loss Monday in front of 19,092 giddy fans in the Tampa Bay area.
“I think we’re closer, but we got swept and there was another level we’ve got to climb, so we’re still climbing,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “I believed that we were ready for that next step. Unfortunately, we fell short.”
It’s not quite as demoralizing an ending as a first-round upset at the hands of a No. 8 seed would’ve been, but it’s not far off. Florida is only the fourth team to get swept out of the playoffs after leading the NHL in points in the regular season.
Those questions the Panthers thought they had maybe answered — about the future of Brunette, about whether a core led by Huberdeau and star center Aleksander Barkov can win in the playoffs, and about whether general manager Bill Zito sacrificed too much of Florida’s future to load up at the trade deadline — are open again.
Brunette is still an interim after stepping in for Joel Quenneville following the former coach’s resignation in the first month of the season, and his first postseason as coach ended with him disputing a WDAE report about some of his players spending the night out partying before Game 4 and his team bowing out in rare fashion. Barkov and Huberdeau have now lost 4 of 5 postseason series in their career, and combined for just three points against the Lightning. Versatile All-Star forward Claude Giroux and defenseman Ben Chiarot — both of whom cost Florida first-round picks to acquire ahead of the deadline — are about to become unrestricted free agents and neither contributed a point in Round 2.
There was also an open question about whether the Panthers’ high-flying style would work in the playoffs, when defenses typically tighten up and advancing usually takes winning low-scoring affairs. It’s one they never came close to answering in the affirmative.
In the regular season, Florida averaged 4.11 goals per game to become the first team to average more than four per game since the 1995-96 NHL season. In the postseason, the Panthers averaged just 2.3 — and scored just three goals against Tampa Bay — to bring their season-long average, including both the regular season and playoffs, down to 3.91.
They went just 1 for 31 on the power play in the playoffs and 1 for 13 in the second round.
“Special teams, for me, was an issue. Obviously, I take a lot of the blame for the power play. That was my fault. It should be better,” said Brunette, who ran the power play as an assistant coach at the start of the season. “I don’t know if I trusted too much to turn around. That one I’ll kick myself all summer. It’s already caused me sleepless nights. Now, it might cost me a sleepless summer.”
The first period Monday was the closest Florida came to looking like its regular-season self against the Lightning. The Panthers fired 17 shots on goal and held Tampa Bay to just three. They generated 17 scoring chances, four high-danger chances and got two power plays. They spent basically the entire period pinning the Lightning back into its own zone.
In this series, it did not matter. Andrei Vasilevskiy was too good. Florida couldn’t beat him once in the first period or on 17 shots in the second, or 15 in the third. The All-Star goaltender stopped all 49 shots he faced and 151 of 154 he faced for a .981 save percentage.
“It was the best game we played as a 60-minute game. It looked like us,” Brunette said. “There were games where we showed flashes of it, but the 60-minute game, at that pace, looked like us.
In this series, the Panthers had more shots than Tampa Bay in 2 of 4 games and more scoring chances in all four. The difference was Vasilevskiy playing like the best goalie in the league — and outdueling star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who was more than respectable with a .919 save percentage in four games — and Florida, even with one of the most star-laden rosters in the league, being completely unable to solve the 27-year-old Russian and his battle-tested teammates.
Even though they were swept, the Panthers lamented how close they felt the series actually was. The goal with 3.8 seconds left in Game 2 is part of it. The entirety of Game 4 is, too, and especially forward Carter Verhaeghe’s shot off both posts and the crossbar with 12:15 left in the second period.
It was the closest Florida came to beating Vasilevskiy and taking its first lead since Game 1, yet the game remained scoreless into the third period despite the Panthers outshooting the Lightning, 34-15, in the first two periods and wiping away a pair of Tampa Bay goals with successful challenges.
The series effectively ended with 13:44 left in the second period, which is when Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian fired a shot from the point to create a tumbling rebound around the crease. The puck bounced behind Bobrovsky and Maroon knocked it into the net to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.
“Every game was pretty much a one-goal game until the third period,” Barkov said. “Most of the games were tight games, but they ended up coming on top every game, so that’s how it went.”
Pat Maroon breaks the deadlock and the Lightning are on top pic.twitter.com/zWMiGzGIfD
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 24, 2022
Although it tied an NHL record with 29 come-from-behind wins in the regular season and finished off Round 1 with three straight comebacks, Florida never found its “Comeback Cats” magic in Round 2.
At the time of the game-winning goal, the Panthers had a 41-18 edge in shots on goal. Florida, however, played four minutes of the final 13:28 on the penalty kill and had only eight more shots after falling behind, most coming on a power play with 2:30 left.
With 22.1 seconds left, the Lightning sealed the victory with the sort of swing it feasted on all series. On one end of the ice, Vasilevskiy stopped a slap shot by defenseman Gustav Forsling and denied the Panthers any rebound attempt, and Tampa Bay took off in the other direction. On the other end of the ice, Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat buried an empty-net goal and Tampa Bay doubled its lead to 2-0.
— Bally Sports Florida: Panthers (@BallyPanthers) May 24, 2022
It brought an end to a season unlike any other in South Florida. The Panthers never dominated a regular season like they did this year and only made it further in the playoffs with one improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals in their third season of existence. They scored more goals in a season than anyone since the salary cap was implemented and, really for the first time ever, can be viewed as something close to a model franchise with the way Zito has quickly transformed them from afterthought into contender.
Even as they get closer, they remain far from the ultimate goal — 12 wins short of a first championship, to be exact. Now, they’ll have to wait another 12 months to find out if they can again get even closer to what they want.
“It’s another step to learn, a learning curve for them. There was one last year and we got through one round, and we’re ready to tap that again,” Brunette said. “There’s more there and I believe the group will take another step, but we’ll get there.”