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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

No Rout: Florida Panthers and Lightning Played a Tight Series

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Nick Cousins celebrates what turned out to be the game-wining goal from Steven Lorentz in the third period of Game 3 in Tampa last Thursday night. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

On the surface, the Florida Panthers opening-round playoff series looked like a rout.

It was anything but.

That fact is not lost on coach Paul Maurice or any of his players.

Jon Cooper and the Lightning, as well.

“That’s the thing about the playoffs,’’ Sam Reinhart said Wednesday. “That series could easily have gone 7, it easily could have gone 4. That’s playoff hockey. The more tight games you come out on top, the better it is for your confidence, the better to be comfortable in those situations. It can be a snowball effect at this time of year.’’

The Panthers did win the opening-round series over rival Tampa Bay in five games, clinching it with a 6-1 win on Monday night.

To casual viewers, it may have looked like a runaway, but a review of the details reveals a different story.

Going into Game 5, the goal differential was one goal; Florida led the series 3-1.

What turned out to be the clinching game Monday was tight until almost midway in the third period when Sasha Barkov did his magic with his second goal of the night.

The goal put a little distance between the teams in what had been a 2-1 game, with the Lightning pressing.

Had either of the earlier overturned Lightning goals been allowed, the entire flow of the game may have changed.

Anthony Cirelli’s first-period goal and Mikhail Sergachev’s in the second were overturned by controversial calls that could have gone either way.

If the NHL heeds Cooper’s postgame comments, the definition of goalie interference may be further clarified.

The final two Florida goals were empty-netters, which inflated the final score and helped further create the illusion of a rout.

“This is only going to get harder — as hard as that was,’’ Anton Lundell said. “We knew it was not going to be easy. They were one of the best teams in the league, and every game was a battle. Huge respect to them. They played unreal, but we were able to play even better. It was huge for our team to be able to come up with the wins.’’

The first two games of the series were one-goal Florida victories.

Game 2 was an overtime game ended by Florida’s “Mr. Clutch” Carter Verhaeghe.

That game will be remembered for Sergei Bobrovsky’s ‘Bobbery’ save on Matt Dumba with the score tied at 2.

Florida won Game 3 in Tampa in another close one.

The final score was 5-3, with the final goal going into an empty net from Matthew Tkachuk as the Panthers finally put the game out of reach.

The Panthers penalty killers saved the day in that one, killing four straight against the league’s top power play.

Game 4 was all Tampa Bay except for a brief second-period spurt, which brought Florida within a goal after going down by three in the first period.

When it was all over, Steven Stamkos summed up the final game and the entire series.

“When you win in the playoffs, you need some bounces, you need some calls, you need a lot of things to go right,” the Tampa Bay captain said.

“We probably disagreed with some of the calls today in regard to the goals. Those are big momentum shifts in a game. That’s the way it is.

“But we battled our asses off and that’s a really good hockey team over there, so you have to give them credit, too.

“They are a really good team for a reason. It just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Whether Boston or Toronto is the opponent in the next round, Maurice says the team appreciates the rest time to heal the standard bumps and bruises, but they are not taking the opposition lightly.

The players had two days off, but the coaching staff was working.

“Now you’re kind of working twice as hard as you would like to because you’ve got two teams you have to video prep for,” Maurice said.

Unlike Tampa Bay, Florida played Toronto and Boston in last year’s playoffs and knows them very well.

“They know us. We know them,” Maurice said. “In a 13-month period those are the two teams we probably know the best.”

Maurice advised that Sam Bennett may be back for the next round, in which case the entire team would be healthy.

The Tampa Bay series was tighter than it seemed, but Maurice was happy with his team’s performance and will be prepared for Round 2, regardless of the opponent.

“We’ve got to come through with a plan,” Maurice said. “I think we came out of that last game with a pretty good template of how we’re moving forward.”

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1) V. BOSTON (A2)/TORONTO (A3)
*Round 1 Series Tied 3-3; Game 7 Saturday @ Boston
BEST-OF-7 SERIES
GAME 1

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