The Florida Panthers have played three games against the Washington Capitals in this first-round playoff series and have looked liked the team which ended with the best record in the NHL for about two-plus periods of them.
In saying that, it is little surprise that they go into Monday night’s Game 4 trailing the best-of-7 series 2-1.
The Panthers, simply put, have not been the Panthers.
Give the Capitals plenty of credit for that.
Their forechecking, backchecking, clog-up-the-middle style has stymied the Panthers for much of Games 1 and 3 as well as the first 15 minutes of Game 2.
But the Panthers need to take a look at themselves in the mirror.
After Game 1, some players said there was nervousness in opening up the playoff series.
Jonathan Huberdeau alluded to that after the Game 3 loss, Andrew Brunette bringing it up on Sunday.
Following the 6-1 loss on Saturday, Brandon Montour said the Panthers “weren’t really ready to play, I think. The energy level, we can say what we want in the room, but we get on the ice and I don’t think we were on it.”
In the postseason, there is no time for timidness.
No room for feeling their way around a game.
The Panthers need to come out and assert themselves.
As Huberdeau said Saturday afternoon, Florida is a better team than this. He said the Panthers will come out in Game 4 and show that.
They had better.
A loss on Monday night, and the Panthers will be playing for their season on Wednesday in Sunrise. A win and the Panthers are right back in this thing.
”Our focus is wholeheartedly on the next game and refocusing on that,” Aaron Ekblad said after a physical practice on Sunday afternoon in Washington, one in which the team took part in puck battle drills along the wall.
”Finding our intensity, sure, but also playing with a levelheadedness and an even-keel that allows you to make plays and do the things we did good all season.”
Brunette questioned his team’s willingness to fight for possession and Sunday, he brought it into the workout.
“The intensity level is important as is understanding every small, little thing has a ramification on the game,” Brunette said. “Through the course of the three games, we have been on the losing end of that and it has cost us some goals. I think with our group, there is still a little nervousness and it is lingering. We have to get a little more angry, more intense for the full 60, for every minute, every play.”
As far as having a desperate team, Brunette said he would rather have an intense one.
“Just some room to breathe a little bit, just find our game,” Brunette said. “You can handle pressure two ways; it can beat you down or you can pick it up a notch by working harder and bring that level of intensity to a higher level.
“I think for us, be us. We have shown little flashes here and there of being us but we haven’t really been the team we have been all year. Credit to them, they have made it hard. They know how to play playoff hockey and we’re still learning a little bit here. There are some good lessons to learn and hopefully we grasp them and bring them into tomorrow.”
Florida ended the regular season as the highest-scoring team in the NHL, but through three games, it has been held to a single goal in two of them.
The Panthers have a goal each from Sasha Barkov, Huberdeau, Claude Giroux and Ekblad — not enough to do the job that is needed to be done.
Florida’s best players need to start playing like it. And soon.
”The first game was obviously very frustrating,” said Sam Reinhart, who had 33 goals and 82 points in his first season with the Panthers but has one assist (on a tic-tac-toe play with Anton Lundell on Thursday) in his first playoff series.
“We did not create enough. They did an exceptional job of keeping us to the perimeter. The last game was a little different; it was the mistakes that we made and they made us pay. We were able to get to the net a little more and their goalie was hot. He made a big difference for them. It’s going to come on the defensive side of the puck for us and that offense is going to come with the chances being there.
“That’s not where the frustration is. There are other aspects of the game we can tighten up. We’re not going to play a perfect game, no one is, but we can tighten up because they have some skill guys who will make you pay.”
The second game of the series, the one in which the Panthers won 5-1, was the one which most embodied what Florida hockey is all about.
After finally breaking through with an Ekblad goal in the first period, Barkov got one for a 2-0 lead going into the second.
The Panthers broke the Capitals’ suffocating style and were able to play with a little more space, playing to their strengths.
Yet as Brunette has warned countless times during the regular season and again in this playoff series, the game changes after Game No. 82.
The room just is not there, not even on the power play where Florida should hold an advantage yet are 0-9 through three games.
The Panthers have a lot to figure out and don’t have a lot of time to do so.
These playoffs are on pace to be the highest scoring ones in almost 30 years. The Panthers should be in on that.
“Perspective? We win a game and we’re evened up and on home ice again,” Reinhart said. “That’s not a challenge at all. It’s a seven-game series and we’re three games in. We know our best hockey has yet to be played and it is right there for us.
“We knew it was going to be a battle and we are right in the thick of it right now.”
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
PANTHERS V. CAPITALS (WSH leads 2-1)
- Game 4: Monday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Capital One Arena, Washington D.C.
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, TBS
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
PANTHERS V. CAPITALS
- Regular season series — Florida won 2-1: @Florida 5, Washington 4 OT (Nov. 4); @Washington 4, Panthers 3 (Nov. 26); @Florida 5, Washington 4 (Nov. 30)
- All-time regular season series: Capitals lead 67-44-11, 9 ties
- Playoff history: First meeting
- First-round schedule — Game 1: Washington 4, @Florida 2; Game 2: @Florida 5, Washington 1; Game 3: @Washington 6, Florida 1; Game 4: Florida at Washington, Monday, 7 (TBS/BSF); Game 5: Washington at Florida, Wednesday, 7:30 (ESPN2/BSF); Game 6*: Florida at Washington, Friday; Game 7: Washington at Florida, May 15. *If necessary