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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Crazy Playoff Race Involved Panthers, Leafs and Lightning

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Panthers playoff

SUNRISE — It was a wild and crazy night in the NHL on Tuesday night. The Florida Panthers were included in the fun as the playoff race hit its zenith.

Between the Panthers storming back to beat the Maple Leafs and Ottawa upsetting Boston, what we thought was going to happen certainly changed.

Just over a week ago, Boston held a five-point lead over Florida in the Atlantic.

If Florida’s regular-season finale against Toronto was to mean anything, it would be to determine whether the two teams would flip-flop in the standings and affect which team opened at home.

Very few counted on Florida to close out the season with four straight wins or Boston to end its regular season by losing three of its last four, including Tuesday’s home loss to lowly Ottawa.

Yet here we are.

The Panthers ended up passing Boston — which, the Bruins do not seem too upset about — and will open with top wild-card finisher Tampa Bay in the first round.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity to be back in the playoffs after the way last year went,’’ Matthew Tkachuk said.

“And I just think it’s super fitting for us to be playing Tampa in this first round. What an unbelievable run they’ve been on since Christmas, or All-Star break. They’re playing very well; we’re playing well so I think it’s going to make for a great series. I’m just excited to be in this series and [to] have an opportunity to play in playoffs again.”

Following Florida’s 5-2 win on Tuesday, the Leafs seemed less concerned about playing Boston than they were about the inconsistent play which allowed Florida to come from a 2-0 deficit and land a decisive victory.

Coach Sheldon Keefe abruptly changed the subject when asked about traveling to Boston after Wednesday’s game with Tampa Bay rather than remaining in Florida to meet the Panthers.

“I thought it was a good, physical, competitive, first period,” Keefe said. “I thought we were right there and controlled things in the first period. They got going in the second period and the crowd gets into it. They get life and momentum. I thought we had to get to another level in the game emotionally and we didn’t get there.”

This might have been an understatement.

Florida outshot Toronto 36-12 over the final two periods.

Goalie Joseph Woll said about playing Boston: “I just heard about it about ten seconds ago. Not too many thoughts. I think our team is prepared for whoever we were going to play, knowing that it could have been Florida or Boston, so I’m confident in our group and our preparation and we’ll be ready for them.”

While all of this was happening, the four-team race for the final Wild Card slot ended in dramatic fashion, with Washington eking out Detroit by the margin of a tiebreaker.

It could have gone either way.

Detroit capped its regular season with two dramatic wins over Montreal.

In the first, the Wings scored a tying goal in the closing seconds of regulation and then won in overtime.

Tuesday, the Wings-Canadiens rematch went to a shootout.

Moments before the players lined up, Washington closed out its 2-1 victory over Philadelphia, thereby negating Detroit’s efforts.

The shootout ended with a Patrick Kane goal for the win.

Although former Panther James Reimer was in net for the final two games, had Detroit won, it would have one of the feel-good stories of the year.

Ex-Panther Alex Lyon, who handled the bulk of the work in the homestretch, would have stepped in and led teams to the playoffs in two consecutive seasons.

It wasn’t meant to be.

“It was tough to come in the room after,” David Perron said. “Obviously, Kane scores the goal, but we knew what happened.”

Our old pal Reimer, always affable in defeat as well as victory, quipped about the tying goal, “It was the most excited I’ve ever been in my life for about a quarter of a second.”

The Leafs close out their season tonight in a meaningless game in Tampa Bay, save for the drama of Auston Matthews’ quest for his 70th goal.

Coach Keefe was non-committal on whether he will rest Matthews.

With the playoffs likely to start Saturday it might be a good idea.

As for the Panthers, they have a couple of days off to prep for the Lightning.

It’s not like they do not know them.

“It’s great. It’s funny how this sometimes work out like that,’’ Sam Bennett said. “It’s a great rivalry. I’m sure the fans will love it and we’re definitely really excited for it.”

For The Best Coverage of the Florida Panthers Anywhere:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (WC1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1)

GAME 1

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