SUNRISE — The rise of Alex Lyon with the Florida Panthers started with a matchup against the Boston Bruins.
The veteran goaltender made a name for himself inside the Panthers’ room after stopping 37 of 40 shots in a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over the eventual NHL record holders for wins (65) and standings points (165) in seasons back on Jan. 28.
Now, after finally finding his footing in the NHL, Lyon is the likely starter against these same Bruins when the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs opens Monday in Boston.
“I never thought I would be in this situation,” Lyon said. “This year, I would have never thought i would be in this situation. Neither would I have 10, 15 years ago. So for me, the ability to see all of this is the icing on the cake. It’s something that is very powerful.”
At the end of an unexpected run of six straight games in net due to illness and injury to Florida’s top two goalies, the league-leading Bruins were the last team on the docket for the Panthers before the All-Star Break.
Lyon, who came into the season as Florida’s No. 3 goalie assigned to AHL Charlotte, was Florida’s only option in net as Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight were both out.
The game against the Bruins also came on the second night of a back-to-back.
Knowing both Bobrovsky and Knight would be back after the break, it looked like that Bruins game would be Lyon’s last shot with the Panthers.
It was not — although he made sure it counted.
”It was an emotional win for me,” Lyon said. ”I knew at that point I’d probably be going back down, so it was just a feel-good way to cap off the end of my time here.”
While he did not know if he was going to step foot in the Florida locker room again, he surely earned the respect of his team that night.
“I think the win against Boston, for him, was kind of the connection to the team that he needed,” coach Paul Maurice said. “[After that,] he could step back into the net the next time and there was a real comfort level with him and the belief that he could do it.”
The pressure was on for Lyon at that point as he was 2-2-1 with a .877 save percentage in his first five games as a Panther — and allowing three goals on 32 shots in a 4-3 regulation loss to Los Angeles the previous night — he had one shot to make his mark on the team.
And that was when he performed his best.
“It just comes with age,” the 30-year-old netminder said. “It hasn’t always been that way. When you look at a guy like Matthew Tkachuk, it seems like he could thrive in an apocalypse. That’s a guy that you would like on your side. I’m not necessarily that way. I just feel like I need to learn, understand and get experience in different situations.”
Lyon came to learn how to deal with that pressure in his six-year professional career spent catching flights between NHL call-ups and being sent back down to the AHL.
To that point, he had not received much of a consistent look at the NHL level but that Boston game seemed to be where it clicked for Lyon.
“He had a major change of visual style in what you see on the ice,” Maurice said.
“What he showed you the first time was just pure battle. The closest thing for people who have been around the game might be Tim Thomas in terms of barrel rolls in the crease and gloves coming off and throwing everything at him to a guy that is very settled in the crease and is very efficient.
“Some of that is just confidence as far as settling your game down and getting back to tracking pucks. It’s been a very significant style change for him and some of that is just comfort level.”
That six-game stretch finally gave Lyon the chance to identify what works and what does not in his game at the NHL level.
“I just feel comfortable,” Lyon said.
“I’m a very experience and learning-based type of person. I need time to understand what works and what doesn’t work and the keys to my game. That has always been a big hurdle for me as I’ve never felt like I’ve had the leash to understand how I can translate my game to the NHL.
“It was the same for me from college to the AHL, it was a transition. But ultimately, my strengths are that once I find something that works, I have the ability to repeat it. So that’s what I’m continuing to focus on and I think that’s ultimately what comes out on the ice.”
While Lyon thought that he exhausted his chances with the Panthers after the All-Star Break, he ended up being wrong.
He got his chance again in just about the most adverse situation a goaltender could be in.
With Bobrovsky out with an illness and Knight away from the team, Lyon had to be the guy as the Panthers were desperately trying to claw their way into the playoffs.
Three points back, eight games to go. Oh, and the team was in Toronto trying to snap a four-game skid.
Lyon was absolute money.
He ended up leading Florida into the playoffs, going 6-1-1 with a .943 save percentage and a 1.87 GAA down the stretch.
Lyon’s new structured style of play coupled with his typical flavor of big, flashy saves backstopped the Panthers in a most improbable run.
“He constantly shows that he is not giving up on a play,” Maurice said. “He is not so much a slave to technique and position that sometimes the effort of the position comes out because you got to be standing in the perfect spot. He leaves it all out there.”
His style of play, charisma and humility in the face of danger was something the team rallied around.
“He is a great guy, great goalie and he is really confident right now,” captain Sasha Barkov said.
”We love playing in front of him. He gets everyone going and when you have that type of guy in the net, you want to play your best and play as hard as possible in front of him.”
Throughout their six-game winning streak, the Panthers locker room started to blare music from the Lion King soundtrack to serenade him and pumped his tires more times than you can count.
The team also rallied around him.
Yet no matter how many times his teammates sing his praises — and sing along to the Lion King — he will always go back to the mindset that has gotten him there: Stay in the moment and have a humble, but positive, attitude.
“I just try to lean into the fact that I make a living playing hockey and make really good money,” Lyon said.
“Life could be a lot worse for me. So I go into every game thinking ‘alright, here’s the worst case scenario and here’s the best case scenario.’ Is my life going to be over if this happens? Probably not. Life keeps moving forward if this happens, so that’s the way I try to approach it.
“I just try to stay in the moment the best I can.
”It’s kind of gravy at this point.”
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 4-1, 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.