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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Back Home, Ready for Lightning in Game 5



Panthers lightning
The Amerant Bank Arena should be hopping tonight as it was on Game 1 last Sunday for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Lightning. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

It had been three weeks since the Florida Panthers had lost a game, but they seem to be handling Saturday’s Game 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning quite well.

Coming home to Sunrise for Game 5 — and the chance to end this best-of-7 series on home ice — probably plays a big role in their collective attitudes.

The Panthers were jumped from the get on Saturday, with Tampa Bay star defenseman Mikhail Sergachev coming back from major leg surgery whipped the sold-out Amalie Arena crowd into a frenzy.

Sergachev had been out since fracturing his tibia and fibula in a game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 7; being in warmups Saturday created a major buzz.

Being announced in the starting lineup almost blew the roof off the building.

“In a normal introduction, you hear all the players’ names,’’ coach Jon Cooper said Saturday. “There will be a cheer, then it gets to Vasilevskiy’s name, and there is a massive cheer. [Saturday], I could not hear the PA guy say Vasilevskiy’s name.

“The roar [on Sergachev’s introduction] just kept going on and on. All the guys on our bench got up. It was a stirring moment. I thought we carried that right into the first period.”

Tampa Bay parlayed that action into three first-period goals and a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes.

Florida made a valiant comeback, but never got closer than a goal away.

Tampa Bay will be again playing for its season tonight, but it will not have the fuel its home crowd gave it on Saturday evening.

The Panthers do not have any surprise players returning — could Roberto Luongo lead the team out in warmups? — but are back where they want to be.

Florida has won its past six games at home, including a four-game homestand to close out the regular season, and are ready to make that seven.

A win tonight and the Panthers have a couple days to rest and wait for the Boston Bruins to finish off the downtrodden Maple Leafs in that opening-round series.

“You are going to lose in the playoffs, too, and you have to handle it,” said coach Paul Maurice, whose team’s previous loss before Saturday was April 6 in Boston.

“It is going to look like that, sometimes, when you lose. We talk all the time about ‘handling your day.’ So, today, we needed to deal with video from last night. Then it’s done and we move on. I am looking forward to getting that one going, seeing how we come out. I think we come out with a little more energy. We were pretty passive in that game.’’

Both Maurice and his players say they know there are things they can correct from Saturday, a game in which Florida was outplayed at the start before it got into the fight.

There were some positives to come out, such as the pressure Florida brought coming out of the first intermission. Going into the third, it felt like the Panthers were going to find a way to pull out a win and sweep the series.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, he of the chorus of introductory cheers, did not let that happen.

Give credit to Tampa Bay’s defensive structure, too, as Florida grew frustrated as the third period wore on.

The Lightning held the Panthers to five shots in the third period.

Steven Stamkos’ no-look laser past the glove of Sergei Bobrovsky broke the Panthers in this one.

“We still feel good,’’ said Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who scored to make it 4-3 in the second. “Obviously, we did not come out the way we wanted last night. That’s something we want to clean up — move our legs, take time-and-space away from them a bit more.”

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