The Florida Panthers were called out by a strong voice in the hockey community — and perhaps their own locker room — ahead of their Wednesday night matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“This is do-or-die for the Panthers right now,’’ Keith Tkachuk, father of Florida star Matthew Tkachuk, told First Up with Korolnek & Colaiacovo.
“I watched them the other night and I know I am staying at Brady’s house and Brady’s team played really well. They have some jam and, you know, I am a little disappointed with the Panthers.
“They are a soft team and they are getting everything they deserve right now.”
For the most part, that seemed to be the case when the Panthers found themselves with their backs against the wall in the final minutes of what very well could have been their fifth consecutive loss.
Florida jumped out to an early lead on a nice play from Eetu Luostarinen to Anton Lundell but then sat back as the Maple Leafs dominated the rest of the first period and erased that lead in the second and third.
“I saw what you saw,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said of his team’s performance up to that point. “Unless you were a Leafs fan, then everything is great.”
If it weren’t for late-game heroics by Sam Reinhart with a minute to go and an overtime winner by Brandon Montour — as well as a stellar performance by Alex Lyon — that could have been the whole story.
Instead, it turned into a 3-2 overtime win to bring the Panthers within a point of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot.
But that still does not make the rest of the game, and the way Florida has played over the past five, excusable.
For the wide majority of it, they shrank to the same way they have played without Sam Bennett this season.
They do not drive the net enough, they make the safe play and they give up a lot more chances defensively.
At this point of the season, one player missing five straight games should not have that big of an effect on a team competing for a playoff spot.
The New York Islanders have been missing star center Mathew Barzal since Feb. 18 and have an 11-4-2 record since.
They did not make excuses, even with star trade deadline pickup Bo Horvat going on an 11-game goal drought while Barzal was missing.
And they occupy the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference because of that.
When Reinhart’s deflection went in, it seemed to have finally shaken off the mediocre aura this team has been playing with since Bennett’s departure from the lineup last week.
Lyon made a big save in overtime and Montour blocked a shot and scored on the other end to give Florida two points they desperately needed.
After 58 minutes of making the safe play and playing to not lose, Montour made the bold decision to jump out on the rush and finish off a 2-on-1 with Sasha Barkov to get the win.
“Do you know what I love about that guy? He does not play on mistakes, he just comes out to win the game,” Maurice said.
“If he has something bad happen in his game, it’s not going to affect his next shift. Not because he doesn’t care or doesn’t have a conscience but it’s just that he wants to win. Those guys are hard to find.
“There will be guys trying to manage a game and try to get through a game and when they have a bad shift they can settle their game but I don’t like those guys.”
For the previous four games before Wednesday night, the game echoed the latter: They only settled after making mistakes, they did not go out there and make up for it to win.
The question that lies ahead is simple.
Will Florida be the team that won the game in the final minutes and in overtime or will they continue the game it played the past week?
With the second half of a road back-to-back coming up (a game the Panthers have not been able to win all season) and Bennett likely to be out again on Thursday in Montreal, an answer awaits shortly.
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT MONTREAL CANADIENS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Bell Center, Montreal
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Sun and BSF (joining after Marlins Opening Day), ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-1
- This season (Florida leads 3-0): Panthers 7, Canadiens 2 (Dec. 29); Panthers 6, Canadiens 2 (Jan. 19); Panthers 9, Canadiens 5 (March 16)
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 54-38-11, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Florida at Columbus Blue Jackets, Saturday, 7 p.m.