SUNRISE — On Thursday night, the Florida Panthers had an opportunity to avoid the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Their first dance could have been against the Carolina Hurricanes — the team they ended up losing 6-4 to — or the New Jersey Devils.
Based on what we saw in the third period Thursday, the Panthers gave it their all to beat the Hurricanes only to come up short.
And, from what we saw in the postgame locker room following their ‘shirts-off-our-back’ ceremony to celebrate Fan Appreciation Night, they were not crestfallen nor depressed.
The Panthers were certainly not a beaten-down team.
So, the Panthers have to face the mighty Bruins, eh?
The team which has won more games in a single season in NHL history?
The same Bruins team which shredded the NHL like a Samurai sword through the Sunday newspaper?
”This is the moment that we have been fighting for the whole year,” Radko Gudas said after Florida’s loss to the Hurricanes, his team’s first regulation loss since March 27 in Ottawa.
“It does not matter what happened in the first 82. This is a whole new season. Anything can happen.
“Hey man, we’re in the playoffs. Let’s F-ing go.”
The Panthers do not appear all that upset that they are heading to Boston for an opening-round series — one which starts Monday night on ESPN — even though most teams would be happy to avoid the big, bad Bruins.
After the season they have endured, however, the Panthers are happy to be in the playoffs.
Not that they are ‘just’ happy to be there, but pleased at the opportunity to continue their season.
Few give the Panthers a shot to force this series to Game 6 much less win it.
They seem to like it that way.
“You know, it is kind of crazy how things transpire in a year and how much things can change,” Sam Reinhart said.
“The pressure is a little different. Last year, we spent two months preparing for the playoffs. This year, we spent two months in a fight just to make it. Different mentality. We’re excited about the challenge, excited for the opportunity.”
Added Gudas: “I think we are a confident group who believes we can play with anyone. The way we played Boston all season, it gave us confidence. They are the team they are for a reason, but we are in the playoffs for a reason as well. I am excited for the challenge. If you want to win it all, you have to get through the biggest hurdle and that’s right from the start for us.”
At this time last year, the Panthers were in the same spot the Bruins are currently in.
Coming into the 2021-22 season, folks knew the Panthers were good but did not think they would go on a run like they did, setting all sorts of records and winning the team’s first Presidents’ Trophy.
This year, the Bruins were looked at as a probable playoff team but no one thought they were going to make NHL history as they ended up doing.
Regular season history, that is.
Boston, it should be noted, is the best team in the NHL this season. No one can argue that.
Only, next week, everything starts at zero.
”It is a fresh start for everyone,” Gudas said. “We’re excited to play anyone and the mindset was, get in and whomever we played, they’re going to have to play our game. If we do that, we can beat anyone.”
The Bruins are stacked and they are certainly deep, but the Panthers do not appear to be afraid of them.
Kind of like last year when the No. 8 Washington Capitals rolled into Sunrise and took Game 1 before coming thisclose to taking a 3-1 series lead.
Then Carter Verhaeghe became a Florida postseason hero and that was that.
The Capitals were not expected to be more than a speedbump on a deep postseason run for the Panthers.
But Washington gave Florida all it could handle.
The Panthers are ready to take what Washington did to them and crank it up to the next level against the Bruins.
“Washington was an experienced team which came in with a gameplan and they executed it,’’ Reinhart said. “It could have gone either way. We’re going to put as much stress on their top guys as possible.”
Coach Paul Maurice talked all season about his team becoming tougher, about becoming a team more suited to play postseason hockey.
We shall see what they have against the Bruins and their legion of fans who will turn the Panthers’ home arena into a humid suburb of Boston come Games 3 and 4.
The Panthers, make no doubt, are happy to be here.
But they are not happy to just be here.
”This is the right challenge for us this year, right?,” Maurice said. “This is so exciting, such a monumental challenge. And that’s where you want to be in pro sports. You want to be in the big game and this is going to be a big game for us.
”That’s where you want to be, right in the middle of it.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS, ROUND 1
BOSTON BRUINS (ATL1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
- GAME 1
- When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: Boston Garden
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN/ESPN+
- 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
- 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 4-2, 1996 (first round)
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: Monday, 7:30 (ESPN); Game 2: at Boston, Wednesday, 7:30 (ESPN); Game 3: at Florida, Friday, 7:30 (TNT); Game 4: at Florida, Sunday, April 23, 3:30 (TNT); Game 5*: at Boston, Wednesday, April 26; Game 6*: at Florida, Friday, April 28; Game 7*: at Boston, Sunday, April 30.