The Florida Panthers were back on a westbound flight to Las Vegas on Sunday afternoon with a little less pep in their step than the last time they made this journey.
On that previous sojourn to Fabulous Las Vegas, the Panthers had all the promise of what could be the greatest moment of their collective careers.
Now, down 3-1 in this Stanley Cup Final to the Golden Knights, the Panthers are in survival mode.
The next loss Florida suffers will mark the end of what has turned out to be a pretty cool 2022-23 campaign.
While hoisting that Cup may have been on their minds when the Panthers last flew west to start the series, it cannot be on their minds now.
One win will not get the Panthers that Cup — but it will keep them in the fight.
“You draw on your routine from the last time, your last experience with it,’’ coach Paul Maurice said Sunday morning when asked about his team fighting back from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round of the playoffs.
“There is in some ways an advantage to the team at times that’s down 3-1 in terms of the freedom it can play with. At the same time, you’re down 3-1 for a reason so clearly the other team has been good. But we have some experience with this, and we’ll draw on it.”
Florida played its best game of the series in Game 3 on Thursday night then watched Vegas do just about everything it wanted in the first two periods of Game 4 against a Panthers team which is showing their lack of depth right now.
The Panthers were able to claw back from a 3-0 deficit thanks to goals from Brandon Montour and Sasha Barkov and came within a hair of tying it up on a wild sequence near the net in the waning seconds of regulation.
“It was definitely an unfortunate loss, but we’ve been in this position before,’’ Sergei Bobrovsky said. “It all comes down to one moment at a time, one period at a time. Right now, we have to let it go and get ready for the next game, for the first faceoff, and build from that.”
Simply put, the Panthers are going to have to put it all out on the line when they get back on the ice on Tuesday night as they try to not only stave off elimination but hold off the awarding of that cherished Cup for another couple of days.
Florida has been in this situation, technically, before in these playoffs when they went back to Boston down 3-1 with summer fast approaching.
The Panthers won a thriller that night in the Garden but the stakes were much bigger on Florida’s side that night and were not necessarily weighing on Boston.
Vegas knows exactly what is at stake on Tuesday night.
The Panthers are going to have to bring it with everything they have and get some help from all over their lineup. Too many players on the Panthers have not been contributing offensively either in the playoffs or in this series specifically.
That has to change or the next flight back to Fort Lauderdale may be the team’s last of the season.
Florida has had at least one three-game winning streak in each of its previous three playoff series.
To keep this season going, the Panthers need to start a fourth one starting Tuesday night in Vegas.
“We’re a resilient group,’’ Brandon Montour said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re in a spot where we’ve been, it’s tough, but we’re going to keep working.”
— Maurice did not have any update on the status of Matthew Tkachuk who is obviously slowed by what appears to be an injured shoulder.
Tkachuk was held out of large chunks of the third period but was on the ice in the final minutes when Florida was making its desperate push.
Speaking hypothetically, Maurice said the same tactic could be employed in Game 5.
“There are players that will play just power play,’’ Maurice said. “There are guys that will stay on for offensive zone draws. There’s different styles of center and winger that you can play with to kind of put them in a position to be good at what they can be good at.”
As far as getting the next couple of days off, Maurice said it benefits the healthy players as well.
“They’re going to have to drive this thing,’’ Maurice said. “Every team has got injuries at this time of year. But your healthy men drive the bus now. The injured guys have probably been dealing with it for a while, they know what they can get away with. …
“You’re not going to leave Barkov on the bench very much so for the guys that are feeling good, the two days will fill the tank for them.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
GAME 5 (Vegas leads 3-1)
- When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
- TV: TNT
- 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
- Series Schedule — Game 1: @Vegas 5, Florida 2; Game 2: @Vegas 7, Florida 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Vegas 2 (OT); Game 4: Vegas 3, @Florida 2 ; Game 5: Tuesday at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Friday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Monday June 19 at Vegas, 8 (TNT). * – If Necessary
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- Postseason History: First meeting
- How They Got Here — Vegas: d. Winnipeg in 5, Edmonton in 6, Dallas in 6; Florida: d. Boston in 7, Toronto in 5, Carolina in 4.