SUNRISE — History is repeating itself for the Florida Panthers.
And we’re not going back to the 90s, either.
For the second straight playoff, the Panthers find themselves down 2-0 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning after playing two games at home.
The reasons why they are down in the series differ.
At least a little bit.
In 2021, the Panthers let a 4-3 lead slip away in the third period of Game 1. That lead to the benching of Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 2 where Chris Driedger allowed three goals on 29 shots in a 3-1 loss.
This time around, it appears the Panthers are having an identity crisis.
Florida finished the regular season with the most goals since 1995-96 (337) and boasted the fifth-best power play in the league at a 24.4 percent clip.
Come playoff time, the Panthers have the lowest goals per game (2.75) out of any of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs and have yet to score on the power play after 25 attempts.
What caused this downfall, you ask?
The Panthers keep trying to get too fancy with it on offense, which they got away with during the regular season, making that extra pass in the playoffs is proving to be costly in the playoffs.
Especially against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay has been excellent at cutting down Florida’s passing lanes, but they have given them room to shoot.
The problem is that the Panthers just won’t take those shots.
“I think you can shoot more,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “We talk about it. We’re getting a little stubborn at times and when you get out of sync with these kinds of things, it’s hard to get your mojo back. When you have it, you have to keep it so we don’t have to be able to find it. I think it starts with a shot. We’re a little reluctant.”
By making the extra pass, they send the puck backward, essentially giving the Lightning a free clear.
Either that, or they pass it directly into Tampa Bay’s defense and let it get opportunities the other way.
Tampa Bay is a team which does not make a lot of mistakes.
A team with as much championship pedigree as the Lightning has is getting plenty of leeway as it wants.
Game 2 was a perfect example of that.
The Panthers were able to control play and get chance after chance offensively, but it was to no avail.
Much of it has to do with their power play making the same mistakes, going 0-4 on the night, but other factors contributed to it as well.
This Florida team has gotten a lot of its offense off of second chance opportunities and this Lightning team is not one to give up many of those chances.
For one, Andrei Vasilevskiy has some of the best rebound control in the league and snuffed out the majority of would-be rebounds before they squeaked out onto the sticks of Panthers players.
The Lightning is consistently able to clog the slot and get the rebounds out of harm’s way before Florida is able to pounce on them.
In doing so, they effectively shut down the ways the Panthers have been able to score all year.
Of course, the way to penetrate that wall is to take the shots the Lightning give them from the perimeter, but those shots are few and far in between.
Eetu Luostarinen did crack the code with 1:53 left in the second period to tie the game, cranking a slap shot with space around him from just above the face-off circle that just squeaked past Vasilevskiy.
It’s shots like that one that could potentially help the Panthers get out of this 2-0 hole — and maybe finally help them score a power play goal.
They aren’t taking what Tampa is giving them and it is proving costly offensively.
Still, the Panthers played with a sense of urgency that helped them control the pace for a large majority of Game 2.
Especially the power play being 0-25 in the playoffs.
“They are squeezing it,” Brunnette said. “It’s really unbelievable. I liked the urgency, thought we had some looks. I thought it was better. There was a great opportunity to capitalize.”
The Panthers made one key mistake that cost them the game with 3.6 seconds left.
Two Florida defenders crashed the back of the net to cover Kucherov but left Ross Colton hanging wide open in front of the net.
Kucherov sent a pass Colton’s way and he fired a shot off the bottom of the crossbar and in to stun the Panthers.
“I loved our game. I thought we’re in a great position,’’ Brunette said. “We controlled the puck with 20 seconds left and just didn’t manage it.
“We made a fatal mistake. We had the puck behind our net and were fine. They weren’t forcing us, really, and we threw it away. Then we threw it away again, lost a battle, and were chasing behind the net. For a game that was structurally good all game, the last 20 seconds cost us tonight.”
It’s going to take a lot for the Panthers to get out of this hole now.
The Panthers will most definitely have to string together multiple wins — something a team has never done against the Lightning since they started their quest for the first of their back-to-back championships.
Vasilevskiy is 17-0 with a .942 save percentage and a 1.41 goals-against average following a playoff loss during that span.
Simply speaking, it has been nearly impossible to beat him, or the Lightning during the postseason.
So, for the Panthers, it is going to be an uphill battle.
Of course, they have made multiple four-goal comebacks throughout the 2021-22 regular season and have earned the moniker ‘Comeback Cats’ in the process, but this is where it gets real.
Being tasked with a 2-0 series deficit to this Lightning team almost seems like a death sentence, but if this team has the same resolve it showed throughout this season, it may have a chance.
After all, this is the same Panthers team that did not lose a beat after the emotions that came with Joel Quenneville’s departure due to his involvement in Kyle Beach’s sexual assault scandal.
It’s the same team that willed itself to winning records when both Aaron Ekblad and Sasha Barkov missed time throughout the regular season.
It was Florida’s depth and willingness to adapt that helped them through those situations, so only time will tell if they are able to bounce back, adapt, and come back in this series.
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING (TB leads 2-0)
- Game 3: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
- Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa
- TV/Streaming: TNT
- Postgame: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING
- Regular season series — Tied 2-2: Florida 4, @Lightning 1 (Oct. 19); @Lightning 3, Florida 2 OT (Nov. 13); @Florida 9, Lightning 3 (Dec 30); Tampa Bay 8, @Florida 4 (April 24).
- All-time regular season series: Panthers lead 73-49-18, 10 ties
- Playoff history: Second meeting; Tampa Bay d. Florida 4-2 in R1, 2021
- Round 1: Florida d. Washington 4-2; Tampa Bay d. Toronto 4-3
- Full schedule — Game 1: Tampa Bay 4, @Florida 1; Game 2: Tampa Bay 2, @Florida 1; Game 3: Florida at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 1:30 (TNT); Game 4: Florida at Tampa Bay, Monday, 7 (TNT); Game 5*: Tampa Bay at Florida, Wednesday, May 25 (Time, TV TBA); Game 6*: Florida at Tampa Bay Lightning, Friday, May 27 (Time, TV TBA); Game 7*: Tampa Bay at Florida, Sunday, May 29 (Time, TV TBA). (*) — If necessary.