The Florida Panthers have faced long odds and massive deficits, elimination games that came down to the final minute and multi-overtime marathons that went into the wee hours of the morning.
They have not faced a climb quite like this one, though.
The Panthers are down 2-0 to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final — their first 2-0 deficit of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs — and need to fight back quickly.
“We could be a lot better, definitely,” All-Star center Aleksander Barkov said.
For the first time in these Stanley Cup playoffs, Florida went on the road for two games to start a series and failed to steal away home-ice advantage from its higher-seeded opponent. In every other round, the Panthers managed to win at least one, staking their claim as relative equals to their opponent, even though they were the lowest-seeded team in the postseason field.
They even did it in the first round against the Bruins, giving them confidence they could hang with the Presidents’ Trophy winners throughout Round 1, even when they eventually lost back-to-back games in Florida to put themselves in a similar two-game hole.
The Panthers, of course, fought back to win three straight elimination games and pull off one of the biggest upsets in NHL history. Those three victories were the first in a torrential stretch of 11 wins in 12 games for Florida, which the Panthers rode to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1996. They also still give Florida confidence it can hang with the Golden Knights despite losing back-to-back games by eight combined goals in Las Vegas over the weekend.
A comeback must begin in Game 3 on Thursday at 8 p.m. at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise or the Panthers will face a near-insurmountable deficit. Only four teams in NHL history have rallied to win a best-of-7 series after losing the first three games and only one of those comebacks happened in a Cup Final — all the way back in 1942.
“We were down 3-1, we still had some good moments in the game and we took good things out of them, tried to do that, tried to repeat that for 60 minutes and we did that three times straight,” Barkov said. “Here, it’s no different. We’re going to try to do the thing for 60 minutes that we did at our best.”
Florida, then, will try to basically throw away Game 2. The Panthers fell behind in just 7:05 and were down by four within the first 28 minutes. They were never competitive with the Golden Knights, even benching star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the second period after giving up a parade of transition chances to Vegas.
Instead, they’ll look to Game 1, which was tied at the start of the third period before the Golden Knights scored three goals to pull out a win in Vegas. Florida did a better job of containing the Golden Knights on the rush then and might have won if not for a spectacular performance from Vegas goaltender Adin HIll.
“The first game was very even, in terms of what we gave off the rush to what we got off the rush,” coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday. “Last night, clearly they got on us off the rush and because we were in a deficit by the time they crossed the line, we had a harder time killing and containing those plays in the ‘D’ zone, so it’ll be a focus for us, for sure.”
The biggest fixes need to happen on defense.
The Panthers blew past the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes in the last two rounds by holding the two Stanley Cup contenders to just 16 goals in nine games. In Game 2 of the Final alone, Florida gave up more goals — seven — than it did in the entire Eastern Conference finals.
It starts with containing the rush, which also means making smarter plays with zone entries to make sure a single defenseman doesn’t get overwhelmed by the Golden Knights’ counterattacks. It also, however, includes better play around Bobrovsky.
The 34-year-old Russian has been the best goaltender in the Cup playoffs, based on MoneyPuck.com’s goals saved above expected, and it required help from his defense.
The Panthers’ blocked shots per game jumped from 13.0 in the regular season to 17.4 in the first three rounds of the playoffs, only to slip all the way down to 11 in the first two games of the Final. Instead, Vegas scored multiple goals on Bobrovsky when the goalie’s vision was blocked by his own teammates.
“If we’re going to be there, you’ve got to block them,” Maurice said. “You’ve got to get in front of those shots, so we’re working at it. We’re trying. We’re three inches off.”
Florida had other problems at T-Mobile Arena — its power play is 0 for 6, it piled up 130 penalty minutes, and it got just one combined point from Barkov and fellow stars Matthew Tkachuk, Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour — and yet there was no real sense of frustration from the Panthers at practice Wednesday in South Florida.
The Panthers are staying with the same approach they’ve had through the entire postseason. They’re sticking cliches, but, they’ve found in this postseason, cliches are often true.
“It’s just desperation and winning a game,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “We’ve approached every game in the playoffs the same way. We’ve tried to take it, like everyone says, one at a time, but we have our back against a wall, obviously. We’re down by two, but we’re coming home. I love our team, love our resiliency. We’re going to go out and give our best effort and play our best game tomorrow, and go from there.”