The Florida Panthers are back in Toronto and will open their second-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs tonight.
Being back in downtown Toronto should bring back some good memories for the Panthers.
It was here, after all, that the team’s resurgence began.
“It fits our season,” coach Paul Maurice said.
Let us set the tone: Florida left Ottawa on Monday, March 27, following a 5-2 loss to the Senators.
The Panthers were three points behind Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and had lost four consecutive games.
To say Florida’s playoff hopes looked bleak was being an optimist.
Realistically, the Panthers looked cooked.
On Tuesday, backup goalie Alex Lyon was told he would be starting the next night against the Maple Leafs in place of a very sick Sergei Bobrovsky. Then, the Penguins surprising lost at home to the Red Wings.
So, the Panthers remained three points out.
On the morning of the game, Matthew Tkachuk’s father Keith — a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame — went on a Toronto radio show and did a hit job on the Panthers.
He called them soft, said they deserved to miss the playoffs and threw it out that his son was extremely frustrated with the Panthers.
Things were looking really dark.
Then the game started. Despite going up 1-0 early, the Panthers seemed to slog through the game and certainly did not look like a team trying to get into the playoffs and snap a long losing streak.
In the second period, Toronto took a 2-1 lead but it was pretty clear that goal was going to be taken off the board on the Florida challenge for offside.
Maurice used the timeout to rip into his team.
Like, really light into them.
Maurice became an internet sensation as no one had any problem figuring out what he was yelling.
“You don’t want to know,” captain Sasha Barkov said when asked what, exactly, was said.
“It definitely got us going, we started playing the right way. I guess against that team and in our situation, we cannot make any cute plays and play like you are outdoors or something. … He has been in the league a long time for a reason and knows how to get things going when needed.’’
While the Panthers did not shake off their malaise immediately after Maurice’s profane tongue lashing, they eventually did.
Lyon played lights out throughout and kept the Panthers in it until Sam Reinhart tied the score at 2 with a minute remaining.
Brandon Montour gave the Panthers a 3-2 win when he scored 1:41 into overtime.
The losing streak was over, Florida was a point out of the playoffs and, unknown to anyone at the time, the Panthers were going to go on a nice run to end the season and lay claim to a playoff spot.
From Toronto on, the Panthers won six straight with Lyon in net before losing 2-1 to the visiting Maple Leafs on April 10 in Sunrise.
Despite losing, that point was enough to clinch a playoff spot the following night as the Penguins were upset at home by the Blackhawks.
Now, the Panthers and Leafs meet again.
Toronto has won three of the four meetings and got seven of the available eight points in the season series.
This is a whole new deal.
The Panthers may not be back in Toronto had it not been for a unexpected win here just over a month ago.
“We were in such a fight for the last two months of our season and had done some great things and then wobbled a bit,” Maurice said. “That win in Toronto maybe refueled us and put us back on a push.”
As for Keith Tkachuk, he certainly feels he played a big role in Florida’s resurgence.
“He’s been taking credit,’’ Brady Tkachuk said last month. “He’s been saying to me, ‘if they get in, I’m Executive of the Year.’ He’s definitely taking this one and laughing about it.
“He is definitely proud of Matthew and everything he’s done.”
Said Matthew: “He definitely considers himself a hero down here in Florida for changing our season around.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
- TV/Streaming: ESPN, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: Tuesday at Toronto, 7 (ESPN); Game 2: Thursday at Toronto, 7 (TNT); Remainder of Schedule: TBA
- How They Got Here: Toronto d. Tampa Bay 4-2; Florida d. Boston 4-3
- Season Series (Toronto won 3-1): Maple Leafs 5, @Panthers 4 OT (Jan. 17); @Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 2 (Mar. 23); Panthers 3, @Maple Leafs 2 OT (March 29); Maple Leafs 2, @Panthers 1 OT (April 10)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 48-36-7, 7 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting