WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Florida Panthers faced their first real adversity of the season following their playoff series against the Washington Capitals, the players held a meeting to set things in order.
They talked about what they needed to do better and ended up on the same page.
“After that we started to play properly,” said captain Aleksander Barkov. “We held each other accountable, worked really hard for each other and for the guy next to you. That’s how you win.”
The Panthers won the franchise’s first playoff series since 1996, drawing on a familiar recipe from the regular season when they were the NHL’s best team and led the league with 29 comeback wins. Each of their last three wins against Washington has been a come-from-behind, once coming from a three-goal deficit and twice some overtime exploits from Carter Verhaeghe.
Initial nervousness at home early in the series eased as Florida began to feel the pressure. Then the Panthers began to look and play like themselves, taking on the winner of the series between back-to-back Stanley Cup winners Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“As the series went on, I felt like they loosened up a little bit,” said interim coach Andrew Brunette. “They found their mojo and went for it.”
That mojo gave the Panthers the confidence they needed to withstand an equalizer from Washington’s TJ Oshie with 1:03 left in Game 6 and a consecutive 0-18 power play drought. They’ve joined just a handful of teams in NHL playoff history to win a best-of-seven series without scoring a power-play goal, but could still laugh about it after an emotional win.
“We just have to keep at it and maybe work on our power play because we didn’t score,” said top winger Jonathan Huberdeau.
No team has scored as many goals during the regular season as the Panthers — an odds of 4.11, a game not equaled since Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Florida didn’t have a team at this point.
Success came early in the organization’s existence with a trip to the cup final in their third season. After being swept by the Colorado Avalanche, the Panthers hadn’t won a playoff series since and the reputation for losing in the first round hung on the franchise and particularly cornerstones Barkov, Huberdeau and defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
Verhaeghe was the team’s top scorer with 12 points, six goals and six assists, but Florida regulars had a big part in the progression and got a chance to soak it all up.
“We’re all happy and (it’s) a huge relief for us,” Huberdeau said. “With that feeling, we didn’t know what it felt like. Last time I felt that as a junior. It’s just good to have that feeling of winning a series again and now we just get to work and think about the second round and who knows, win that one too.”
Newcomers also played a major role. Trade-deadline acquisition Claude Giroux scored in the third period of Game 6 and set up Verhaeghe for the overtime winner in what was some redemption for the longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain after losing a key faceoff late in the rule , when Washington equalized it.
“If they tie it, some guys might be a little down,” Giroux said. “I was probably one of them. But the mood was great. guys were excited. The lads felt that if we played our game, we could get our chances and score.”
Even in the midst of their power play struggles, the Panthers showed they could score 5-on-5 goals and received a solid goalie performance from Sergei Bobrovsky to keep South Florida playoff hockey going. Although his team had made up for the “Comeback Cats” moniker, Brunette saw the series more as what the Panthers had made up for all year.
“I see a group of guys who get hit and don’t fall, and then they hit back,” he said. “Giving up a late goal, those are heartbreaking moments. They could really affect you, it could kill the momentum, it could do a lot of things, and again we took the punch, we got up and then we started hitting back. That embodies what the whole season has been.”
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