Before the Florida Panthers beat the Capitals in overtime on Friday night, Jonathan Huberdeau had not experienced any sort of playoff success since his days with Gerard Gallant and the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Sasha Barkov last won in the postseason while in Finland.
Well, his Barrie Colts team was pretty good.
But when it came to the Panthers, these three — the core of the Panthers’ youth movement of the 2010s — had never been on a Florida team which got out of the first round.
So, when those guys lined up for the postgame handshake moments after Carter Verhaeghe won Game 6 in overtime, you can bet they enjoyed it.
For the first time, we might add.
“It was, obviously, different being on the other side,” Huberdeau said. “It’s the best way.”
The Panthers ended a lengthy postseason drought in which it took 26 years to win a single playoff round.
Florida had not advanced since beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the 1996 Eastern Conference finals.
Toronto, which plays Tampa Bay tonight in Game 7, now holds the longest such streak as the Leafs have not moved on since 2004.
The group of Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad are not to blame for the failures of the 1997 team nor the 2000 squad who got swept out by the New Jersey Devils.
They really aren’t to blame for the 2016 exit to the Islanders — but the longer this went on, the more it would feel like it was.
”It starts with the guys who have been here for a while; Barky, Huby, Ek,’’ Ryan Lomberg said. “I am happy for those guys and proud of those guys. On to the next one. … They are really the foundation of what we have going here. Proud of those guys, excited for them and our whole group moving forward.”
The three of them are the longest tenured players on the team who were drafted either first, second or third between 2011-14.
Together they brought so much hope and promise to the organization as they matured — and probably needed this as much as the organization did.
If you remember the look on Huberdeau’s face after being knocked out by the Lightning last May, you probably understand.
“Yes, it does. I’m not going to lie,’’ Barkov said when asked if winning Friday night felt like a weight off his neck.
“It feels amazing. During my nine-year career here, I haven’t been to the second round. It feels great but at the same time, I know there is a lot of work to do. Right now, we enjoy this and get back to work tomorrow. Or whenever.”
The Panthers, one can rest assured, are taking Saturday off.
“You’ve got to go through them a few times to really get the feel of it,’’ coach Andrew Brunette said.
“You have to have heartbreaks and things that don’t go your way. You can find how hard it is and understand it and be resilient. When you see the reward like they saw tonight it’s all worth it.’’
The Panthers had their share of faults in this series — although they were able to play through them and move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals where they will face the winner of that Game 7 in Toronto tonight.
Florida fell behind time and again but someone (almost) always found a way to come back.
Washington gave the Panthers all they could handle from Game 1 all the way up to the time Carter Verhaeghe backhanded a Claude Giroux pass 2:46 into overtime on Friday night.
“It feels good,’’ Huberdeau said. “A lot of years and finally rewarded. These guys played hard all series long and tonight was up-and-down all night. We stuck with it and it was a big goal.
“Swagieux had a hell of a series and we owe it to him, two huge OT goals. It’s nice to come up and win the series and we can think about the second round.”
The Capitals won Game 1 in Sunrise and then blew the Panthers out of Capital One Arena in Game 3 last Saturday.
Huberdeau said the players met following that game about what happened and, although things remained tight, the Panthers won the next three.
Verhaeghe, obviously, had a big hand in those as he scored three consecutive game winning goals.
Still, for a Florida team which really has not accomplished much outside of that expansion run to the Finals in 1996, this was a huge first step.
”We talked about it,” Claude Giroux said. “Not in a negative way, just in how much we wanted to move on and go play in the second round. I feel we have some momentum here.”
Perhaps the next one will not take so long.
”Now we go to work in the second round,’’ Huberdeau said. “Let’s go win this one as well.”
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS V. MAPLE LEAFS or LIGHTNING
- Game 1: TBA
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: National TV TBA (ESPN or TNT/TBS)
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE