WASHINGTON, D.C. — Florida Panthers coach Andrew Brunette made a pivotal coaching decision ahead of a crucial Game 6 matchup with the Washington Capitals on Friday.
Out came Anthony Duclair, who scored 31 goals in the regular season but only had two assists off one shot on goal in the first five postseason games.
In came Ryan Lomberg, the Panthers’ resident fourth-line grinder who usually provides the team with a spark of energy.
Lomberg found watching Games 2-5 after Noel Acciari was put in and did not come out.
“This is the toughest time of year to be watching,” Lomberg said, “so I wanted to show everyone that I could help the team win.’’
That he did.
Nic Dowd had just put the Capitals up a goal and had seemingly taken the energy out of a Panthers team that held off their brigade of 26 hits in the first period.
That was until Lomberg came barrelling into the slot three minutes later, picking up a Patric Hornqvist rebound and putting it past Ilya Samsonov to tie the game up.
“Out of everyone on our whole group, he is probably the one guy that gets everyone excited when he scores,” Brunette said.
“He brought what we were hoping we would bring. He brought energy, he brought speed, he brought tenacity on pucks, all the things that he has done for us all year. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to play earlier, but he took advantage of the opportunity.”
Brunette called Lomberg a “heartbeat” for the team multiple times throughout the regular season, and it could not have rung more true than it did during Game 6.
“We didn’t have a lot going on and our play was kind of dead,” Claude Giroux said.
”He gets that big goal for us after his line has a great shift and we were able to breathe a little bit.”
While the Panthers fell behind 2-1 after a Nicklas Backstrom deflection 1:37 into the second, the Panthers — and Giroux’s line more specifically — answered the call.
Giroux fired off a wrist shot from the right circle past Samsonov 8:18 into the third to tie it, then he slipped a rebound onto the stick of Sasha Barkov, who fired off a go-ahead goal with 5:18 remaining.
Washington ended up tying the game with 1:03 to go.
The Panthers panicked, right?
“We were alright with it,” Lomberg said. “All year, we’ve been in a position where we’ve behind in those games. We’ve been tight right until the end and there’s great leadership in the room. There wasn’t a panic, we weren’t down, we were just excited to get out there and finish a job.”
Carter Verhaeghe finished the game just as Lomberg started it, driving hard to the net and roofing a feed from Giroux with a backhander to win Florida its first playoff series since 1996.
”It starts with the guys who have been here for a while; Barky, Huby, Ek,’’ Lomberg said. “I am happy for those guys and proud of those guys. On to the next one. … They are really the foundation of what we have going here. Proud of those guys, excited for them and our whole group moving forward.”
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS V. MAPLE LEAFS or LIGHTNING
- Game 1: TBA
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: National TV TBA (ESPN or TNT/TBS)
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE