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Florida Panthers Fought Their Way into the Playoffs

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Matthew Tkachuk celebrates with teammates Brandon Montour, Marc Staal, Sasha Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe after he scored with a minute left to give the Panthers a win over the host Washington Capitals last Saturday night. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

SUNRISE — If there is one advantage the Florida Panthers have going into the playoffs over their Presidents’ Trophy-winning version from last year is this bunch has been through some things.

After grinding their way through one of the strangely road-heavy stretches in NHL history — coach Paul Maurice said multiple times he hadn’t seen anything like it in his 25 years of coaching — and a slew of injuries, the prospect of playing the record-breaking Boston Bruins does not feel so daunting.

“We had three sets of back-to-backs in two weeks and had a lot of guys injured and we came out about .500 against good teams,” Maurice said.

The climax of that run of games happened to be against the Bruins as FLA Live Arena was gearing up to host the All-Star Game.

Alex Lyon finished up a stretch of six straight starts with 37 saves on 40 shots against the team which would end up breaking the NHL record for wins (65) and points (135) in a season.

Things looked bleak for the Florida when David Pastrnak put Boston ahead with 49 seconds to go but Sasha Barkov had other plans.

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The captain tied the game up with three seconds remaining and assisted on Sam Reinhart’s game-winner 17 seconds into overtime to send the Panthers into the All-Star Break on a high note.

“That was the end of as tough of a stretch of hockey I’ve ever seen in terms of back-to-backs and playoff teams,” Maurice said.

”We were beat up at the time and we scored with 3.7 left and we stayed in the fight.”

That win gave the Panthers the mojo they needed to string together their first streak of three or more wins once they got out of the All-Star Break and it stuck with them for a while.

They went 18-10-2 since.

Florida did not walk into the postseason as easily as that record suggests, however.

The Panthers found themselves three points out of a playoff spot with eight games to go after losing four straight near the end of March.

Florida then ripped off a season-high six-game winning streak and picked up points in seven of their final eight games to punch its ticket to the postseason.

“All credit to the boys here. It didn’t look good here two weeks ago and then they won six games in a row and things can change in a hurry,” Patric Hornqvist said.

“This group is feeling good about themselves. They are feeling good about their game, the goaltending is unreal and all of the pieces are there for having a good run.”

And maybe that is what this year’s team has that last year’s did not.

The Panthers went into the playoffs on cruise control last season after locking up their playoff spot in early April and it took them three games to get themselves going once the postseason started.

And it cost them when they were swept by a playoff-proven Tampa Bay Lightning squad in the second round.

While the challenge ahead is a lot harder, the team that is taking the challenge is different.

”I love the competition,” Anthony Duclair said. “I think it is going to bring the best out of each and every single one of us.

”Last year, I wouldn’t say it hurt us but, at the same time, when you clinch early, you kind of take your foot off the gas a little bit. For us, we have been playing with this playoff mentality for the last two months coming into the playoffs and I think it is going to be huge.

”We have definitely shown a lot of guts from a lot of guys. It’s do or die every game.”

Even with the NHL’s greatest regular season team of all-time ahead of them, the Panthers are not pumping the brakes just yet.

They have players who have been both sides of upsets like this and they know it’s possible to etch another one into the history books here.

The last eighth-seed to upset the top team in the opening round came in 2018 when the Blue Jackets stunned the Lightning with a four-game sweep.

Sergei Bobrovsky was in net for that monumental upset.

“We are not happy just getting into the playoffs here. We believe that we have a good enough team that you never know what can happen in these situations,”  Matthew Tkachuk said.

“When I was in Calgary, I was on the other side of it being the highest-seeded team playing against a team that was hot coming in and it is not as easy as it seems.”

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS, ROUND 1
BOSTON BRUINS (ATL1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
  • GAME 1

  • When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Boston Garden
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN/ESPN+
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM/WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
  • Season Series (Tied 2-2): @Boston 5, Florida 3 (Oct. 17); @Florida 5, Boston 2 (Nov. 23); @Boston 7, Florida 3 (Dec. 19); @Florida 4, Boston 3 OT (Jan. 28)
  • Last season: Boston won 2-1
  • All-time regular season series: Boston leads 60-38-6, 6 ties
  • Playoff History (Florida leads 1-0): Panthers 4-1, 1996 (first round)
  • First Round Schedule — Game 1: Monday, 7:30 (ESPN); Game 2: at Boston, Wednesday, 7:30 (ESPN); Game 3: at Florida, Friday, 7:30 (TNT); Game 4: at Florida, Sunday, April 23, 3:30 (TNT); Game 5*: at Boston, Wednesday, April 26; Game 6*: at Florida, Friday, April 28; Game 7*: at Boston, Sunday, April 30.

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