The best regular season in Florida Panthers history ended with franchise records for points, wins and goals, an offensive explosion the NHL hasn’t seen in more than two decades and a Presidents’ Trophy. They were the best team in the NHL and they did it by scoring more than four goals a game, sacrificing some defensive structure in favor of firepower and offensive relentlessness. They entered the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed at the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference.
It all also rose a question: Can the Panthers, who scored at a rate no one else has in more than 25 years, make their wide-open style work in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when defenses tighten up and scoring typically plummets?
In Game 1, the Washington Capitals denied it. Florida gave up three goals in the final 12 minutes to lose 4-2 and bring back to the surface those old playoff demons. Now down 1-0 in the first round, Panthers still haven’t led in a postseason series since 2012 and haven’t won a Game 1 since 1997.
“We kind of self-destructed,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said.
In the regular season, Florida was 39-0 when leading at the end of the second period. Now the Panthers are 0-1 in the playoffs.
In the regular season, Florida averaged 37.3 shots per game and the Panthers at least matched its opponent in shots on goal in 62 of 82 games. In Game 1, Washington outshot Florida, 38-32, and had a 30-23 edge in scoring chances and 13-8 edge in high-danger chances.
The Panthers tied an NHL record with 29 come-from-behind wins in the regular season and nearly had another one Tuesday. Instead, they wound up blowing a lead to the No. 8 seed — albeit one with major playoff experience.
“The playoffs is a different beast altogether, so that’s the way it is,” forward Sam Bennett said. “It’s going to be a lot harder in the playoffs.”
Florida weathered the initial storm from the Capitals, who won the Stanley Cup in 2018 and still has nine players from the title team, including All-Star forwards Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and star defenseman John Carlson. Wilson scored in with 16:17 left in the first period at the last possible moment of a 3:01 power play after the Panthers survived 1:01 of a 5-on-3 and nearly two more minutes of 5-on-4. By the end of the period, the game was tied 1-1 on a late goal by Bennett and Florida went ahead 2-1 in the first minute of the second period when versatile All-Star forward Claude Giroux scored on a rebound off a shot by star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
The lead held up for nearly two and a half periods, mostly because of Sergei Bobrovsky. The goaltender — who won two Vezina Trophies with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but has drawn near-constant ire from a fan base frustrated by his underwhelming play on a seven-year, $70 million contract — stopped 30 of 31 shots he faced in the first two periods to give the Panthers a lead going into the third, with a raucous crowd of 19,678 behind him at FLA Live Arena.
He only finished with 34 saves on 37 shots, though. Washington scored three goals on just seven shots in the third period — one was an empty-net goal in the last minute — land the first blow in this best-of-seven series.
“We haven’t had a lot of hard games,” Brunette said, “and we didn’t handle it as well as we’d like to.”
Although the shot differential was unusual, Florida’s mistakes weren’t. The Panthers overpassed on offense and got caught out of position on defense. The Capitals’ game-tying and -winning goals both came in transition. On the first, Ovechkin stole the puck from Weegar in the neutral zone to set up Kuznetsov for a game-tying breakaway goal with 11:46 left. On the second, Nicklas Backstrom launched a centering pass from the left point and fellow Washington forward T.J. Oshie deflected the game-winning goal past Bobrovsky with 9:23 left.
The Panthers’ 12-7 advantage in shots on goal wasn’t enough to put together one more comeback.
“We had two turnovers and then we couldn’t come back. That’s the way that playoff hockey goes,” Brunette said. “We got really way too cute. We were trying to make the extra play with the 2-on-0 breakaways or just trying to do some things uncharacteristically that we did all year.”
Florida is fighting its own history and now a first-round deficit, too. It also has to fight against the recent inauspicious history of Presidents’ Trophy winners.
The team with the best record in the regular season hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 2013 and four of those teams have lost in the first round in the last 20 years. The Panthers will need to win four of the next six to avoid becoming the fifth.
“We let one slip away,” said star defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who returned to the lineup after missing the final six weeks of the regular season with a knee injury. “I like to think we’re going to learn a valuable lesson from this.”
This story was originally published May 3, 2022 10:12 PM.