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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Business Trip: Florida Panthers Back In Toronto for Game 5

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The final two equipment bags sit outside the Florida Panthers locker room at FLA Live Arena on Thursday morning in Sunrise. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

SUNRISE — When this playoff series started, the Florida Panthers always expected to return to Toronto for Game 5 against the Maple Leafs.

Few would have guessed at the time that the Panthers would have had the opportunity to sweep the Leafs in 4.

Now that there is a Game 5 by virtue of the Leafs’ 2-1 win in Sunrise on Wednesday night, the Panthers packed up their gear and flew to the so-called ‘Centre of the Hockey Universe’ for what should be a rollicking night of playoff fun on Friday night.

“We would have taken a 3-0 lead against anyone,” Eric Staal said. “We’re happy we can do battle every day. Obviously we wanted to get the job done at home, but it didn‘t happen for us.

“We can tweak some things, workout some things in our game to be better tomorrow and I expect us to do that. It’s a great challenge for us and I know our group is excited and trusts what we have in each other. We look forward to it.”

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The Panthers may have seen their six-game playoff winning streak come to a close on Wednesday night, but they go into Toronto with one streak intact.

Since Game 2 in Boston, the Panthers have won their past five road games as they have handled some pretty hostile environments quite well.

Florida ended up going 3-1 in Boston during the opening round and are 2-0 in this series.

“I don’t feel a difference at all,” Paul Maurice said. “There is something nice, especially in the playoffs, about being on the road. It is kind of a cool feeling. Everyone in the building is not cheering for you. It is just you. There is a simplicity to your game on the road. You’re not trying to sell tickets, you’re just here for the points. Just play the game. The energy in the building you can use.”

Toronto was on the verge of elimination on Wednesday night and will be again tonight.

Florida has not won a close-out playoff game on home ice since — you guessed it — 1996 but have a history of finishing teams on the road.

It’s not a long history, obviously, but it is there.

In 1996, Florida advanced to the Stanley Cup Final by winning in Pittsburgh; last year, the Panthers’ first playoff series win since that Game 7 against the Penguins came in Washington.

This year, the Panthers beat the Bruins in Boston in overtime of Game 7.

The Panthers seem to have bonded during all this time away from home.

“We get to spend more time together, being in the hotel, going to dinner together,’’ Sasha Barkov said. “It’s a good thing we like each other. It’s not a problem for us.”

This is a team which has shown it can win on the road although that was not the case for much of the season.

Maurice even spoke of that a few days ago when he said he and his coaches celebrated when the Panthers finally got their record to .500 at 19-19-3 with a win at Washington on April 19 in their final road game.

Of course, the Panthers are walking into a tough place tonight.

Toronto now has a slimmer of hope after being down 3-0 following a loss in Sunrise on Sunday night. The Bruins let the Panthers off the mat in Game 5 and we saw what happened there.

The Panthers, certainly, would like to leave Toronto with a win and not have to return to Ontario unless it is to visit family or a stay at the summer lake cottage.

“We’re going to try and play as hard as we can and try and play better than we did in the last game,” Maurice said. “If we win a series or not and don’t get better, it’s not going to matter anyways. You’re not going to win away.”

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2)
GAME 5 (Florida Leads 3-1)

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