SUNRISE — Coach Paul Maurice would not admit it but the Florida Panthers had a golden opportunity to take control of their series against the battered, yet still powerful, Boston Bruins.
And they did not take advantage.
Now it may be too late.
Florida came into Friday’s Game 3 on home ice tied 1-1 with Boston captain Patrice Bergeron missing the first two games with the Bruins ruling him out for the two games in Sunrise.
Things opened up even further down the middle when David Krejci was a late scratch for Game 3 and and would miss Sunday’s Game 4 as well.
Boston won them both and now takes a commanding 3-1 series lead after winning 6-2 in Game 4 on Sunday night.
Even for a team which broke records for wins and points in a season, losing two of your best players down the middle is enough to make you vulnerable.
Especially when the team on the other side boasts a wide array of talent including a star in Sasha Barkov and a pair of No. 2 caliber guys such as Sam Bennett and Anton Lundell.
To put it simply, Florida did not play up to its standard as Boston’s depth stepped up.
It cost the Panthers.
Florida dropped Games 3 and 4 in near embarrassing fashion and now head to Boston in desperation mode down 3-1.
And, come Game 5 in Boston on Wednesday, both Bergeron and Krejci may just be back.
“I don’t think any reporter on the face of the hockey world would call that a missed opportunity,” Maurice said, referring to Boston’s historical regular-season — one with Bergeron and Krejci being on the ice for much of it.
Perhaps Maurice was right.
Only it says a lot more about the Panthers than it does about the Bruins being an untouchable juggernaut.
Part of the reason why the Panthers squandered their opportunity was obvious: Their top guns have not show up especially their captain as Barkov has two assists in four games and is a minus-2.
Barkov has been outclassed by the likes of Pavel Zacha, who has four points and has centered a line with Jake DeBrusk and Taylor Hall. That line has combined for 16 points in the opening four games.
Lundell has been held off the scoresheet completely. But, one could point to Maurice’s stubbornness of keeping a slumping Ryan Lomberg on that line and offering Zac Dalpe on the the right side of that line in Game 4 for that.
Still, Lundell has yet to step up.
Truthfully, that could be said about just about every player in Florida’s lineup other than Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk and Brandon Montour.
With a team filled with as much talent as the Panthers have, they have continued to be content with throwing shots on net from the point and hoping one of their forwards chase down a rebound.
The problem is that the forwards — even with a big relief as arguably the greatest defensive forward of all-time is out of the Boston lineup — have not been able to break through the wall of Bruin defenders in front.
It was very similar to the way Florida fell victim to Andrei Vasilevskiy and a stout Tampa Bay Lightning defense in a second-round sweep last year.
Last season it was their stubbornness to keep trying to make things happen from the perimeter with their forwards. This time it was the forwards’ inability to get to those second-chance opportunities.
The Panthers committed to being a team that could play a playoff-style of hockey, a team which supposedly found their rhythm going into the first-round of the playoffs.
And whether Maurice would admit it, Bergeron and Krejci being out was a big opportunity to show that they could.
So far, they have not.
And now it is probably too late.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS, ROUND 1
BOSTON BRUINS (ATL1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 5 (Boston Leads 3-1)
- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Boston Garden
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Regular 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: @Boston 3, Florida 1; Game 2: Florida 6, @Boston 3; Game 3: Boston 4, @Florida 2; Game 4: Boston 6, @Florida 2; Game 5: at Boston, Wednesday, 7 (BSF, ESPN); Game 6*: at Florida, Friday; Game 7*: at Boston, Sunday, April 30. (*) — If Necessary.