Tampa Bay now leads the best-of-seven series 3-0, and can eliminate the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers with a victory in Monday’s Game 4.
“They have more will and more desire than we do,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “We’re a good team when (our) backs are against the wall, and it looks bleak. Hopefully, we can find some energy and some passion and some joy.”
Only four teams in NHL history have come back to win a playoff series after trailing 3-0. If Florida can’t produce a victory, the Panthers will become the first regular-season points leader (122) to be swept from the playoffs since, ironically, the 2019 Lightning were sent packing by Columbus in their first-round series.
Since then, Tampa Bay has won two consecutive Stanley Cups. And the Lightning have looked every bit like champions in shutting down Florida’s once-potent offensive attack.
The Panthers have scored only one goal in each of the series’ first three games, an impotence in stark contrast to their regular-season dominance, when they averaged a league-high 4.11 goals per game. Florida was never shut out either, and registered just one goal only three times.
In each of those outings — all losses — the Panthers also allowed four or more goals against. That’s been the case in two of the three losses to Tampa as well.
“It’s on us,” forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. “I’ve got to be better. Every guy can do a little bit better, play more of our game. Giving them the puck, that’s what they’re waiting for. They’re a good team. They just wait for us to make mistakes and they advantage of it.”
Florida was nearly not in this position at all. The Panthers were dealt a dagger in Game 2 when Lightning forward Ross Colton broke a 1-1 tie with less than four seconds remaining in regulation to rob Florida of a chance at overtime.
The Panthers had two days off — a rarity this early in the postseason — to regroup. Still, Florida trailed Game 3 off the bat when Corey Perry opened scoring with a first-period tip past Sergei Bobrovsky.
Then, a beacon of hope.
Sam Reinhart responded less than three minutes later with Florida’s lone goal that finally broke the Panthers’ bad luck on the power play. They were the only postseason team left not to capitalize with an extra man, entering Game 3 0-for-25 on the man advantage.
While his marker didn’t spark Florida’s offense, Reinhart was hopeful the quick turnaround to Game 4 would be an asset.
“You don’t want much time in these situations to think about it too much,” he said. “You just want to go out there, play and put on a better performance.”
Florida will need more from its top players to achieve that. Huberdeau assisted on Reinhart’s goal and has only two helpers this series. Aleksander Barkov has no goals and one assist. Ditto for Claude Giroux. Bobrovsky made 31 saves on Sunday and has a solid .908 SV% in the series; it just hasn’t been enough.
Huberdeau, at least, is trying now to keep the Panthers’ mountain ahead in perspective.
“We can show up (Monday), win a game, and it’s a different series,” he said. “We know we can do it. We have that kind of team.”
To do that, Florida will have to solve Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner has been sensational in this series and was again on Sunday, turning aside 34 shots. Huberdeau registered only one of those but was optimistic someone from Florida could break Vasilevskiy down.
“He’s a great goalie,” Huberdeau said. “But eventually he’s going to let one in that’s going to help us.”
That’s the Panthers’ only path now to an odds-defying comeback.
“It’s 3-0. Who cares?” Huberdeau said. “We can come back.”