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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Keep On Winning, Beat Leafs in OT for 3-0 Lead

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Florida’s Sam Reinhart celebrates with linemate Anton Lundell after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series in Sunrise on Sunday night. The Panthers now hold a 3-0 series lead on Toronto. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers have found themselves in desperation mode a few times in the past, but Sunday night, they were being hunted down by the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs.

After losing the first two games at home in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Toronto had to beat the Panthers at FLA Live Arena.

Uh-oh.

The Panthers, by virtue of their 3-2 overtime win in Game 3 at FLA Live Arena, now hold a commanding 3-0 series lead on the humbled Maple Leafs.

It was Florida’s third overtime win of these playoffs but first at home since Game 4 in the second round at Miami Arena against Philadelphia in 1996.

Like those Flyers, Toronto is scrambling and wondering what in the world is happening.

Just a few days ago, the Leafs were celebrating their Game 6 overtime win in Tampa, advancing to the second round for the first time since 2004.

Things can change very quickly and, for the Panthers, there is blood in the water.

Florida, which has won its past six playoff games with Sergei Bobrovsky in net, can sweep the Leafs back to Toronto with a win in Game 4 on Wednesday night.

A win in Game 4 would send the Panthers to the Eastern Conference finals for just the second time in franchise history and first since 1996.

When it comes to Panthers’ history, 1993 and 1996 are the benchmarks and mentioned ad nauseam.

This 2023 version of the Panthers is joining that conversation.

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The Panthers are not scared of anyone right now and are rolling through two of the best teams the NHL has to offer.

For a team that struggled for much of the year but caught fire when it mattered most and qualified as the final playoff team in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers are playing their best at the absolute perfect time.

“It is not a function of Toronto, but a function of what we have been through,’’ coach Paul Maurice said.

A Toronto newspaper called them the ‘HellCats’ after their Game 2 win on Thursday night.

The nickname is starting to catch on.

With six consecutive playoff wins, only three teams have enjoyed a longer playoff streak in the past decade including last year’s Cup champion Avalanche.

The Panthers are the hottest thing in sports right now.

“We’re getting that confidence day in and day out, just a little bit more each time,” said Sam Reinhart, whose wraparound goal 3:02 into overtime Sunday put the Panthers in a position they have not been in 27 years.

“We have had a lot of guys stepping up at big moments and we are trying to execute the same game plan and are gaining more confidence in big situations.”

It was not long ago that the Panthers appeared done, their season on the edge of elimination.

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday night in Sunrise, the Boston Bruins beat the Panthers 6-2 in Game 4 of their opening-round series. The mighty Bruins, a team with the best regular-season in NHL history, had the Panthers on the mat.

Florida got itself up and started swinging — connecting one blow after another.

“It’s been a long run,’’ Anton Lundell said. “The grind has made our team stronger. We’ve been facing hard times together. We’ve been battling through them. Now it’s just one game at a time. … It says a lot about our team that we’re able to turn tight games to our advantage.”

Instead of cleaning out their lockers and packing up for the summer, the Panthers pulled out an overtime win at Boston in Game 5.

They have been humming along ever since.

Florida just will not lose. The Panthers won the final three games of that series against the Bruins and have now won the first three games of this series against the Leafs.

Of Florida’s six consecutive wins, three have come in overtime. The Panthers are winning close games and are doing so in crunch time.

“There are a lot of things going our way and we’re trying to take things day-by-day and not look at the past,” Aaron Ekblad said. “Whether we have won six games in a row, we’re just trying to find a way to do the right things day-in and day-out. … Not to dwell on it too much, but we’re here now and excited to be in the situation we are in.”

The two best teams in hockey this season, arguably, are the Bruins and Leafs.

And Florida has won six straight games against the them.

It is not only an unexpected run of success, but one that would have been unimaginable just a week ago.

With a win Wednesday night in Game 4, the Panthers will not only move on to their first Eastern Conference finals series since their magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but they will do so by dismantling the two best teams in the NHL this season.

The Leafs thought the Panthers did them a favor by knocking out the Bruins.

Sometimes you get what you wish for and the Leafs are not happy with the so-called gift they received.

The Panthers are confident and pulling out all the stops.

“We had a really good game, played really well and went to overtime and that’s what it is sometimes,” Sasha Barkov said.

“You have to go a day at a time, a game at a time. That’s my mindset, that is our mindset. We played a really good game today but have things to work on. There is no quit, we work really hard and believe in each other. That’s what it takes. We get the bounces sometimes but we work for them.”

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2) AT FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 4 (Florida Leads 3-0)

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