Florida Panthers’ magical season seems out of answers, out of hope & now almost out of time | Opinion

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·4 min read
Chris O'Meara/AP
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The Florida Panthers had fight, will, desperation, heart. They had moments, flurries, big chances. They even had a power-play goal, their first this postseason.

They had just about everything on Sunday afternoon except an answer, a way to solve Tampa Bay.

They haven’t all series.

And it is why -- barring a modern-day miracle on ice -- the greatest year in the Panthers’ 28-seaason history will end soon, too soon, and ingloriously.

It was everything but must-win for Florida in the Sunday matinee 250 miles north, but it was Tampa Bay winning, again, this time 5-1, for a monumental 3-0 series lead in this best-of-7.

And to a screeching halt has gone the NHL’s highest-scoring offense in 26 years.

“We’re playing against the best goalie in the word You can see why they won two Stanley Cups in a row,” said Jonathan Huberdeau. “It’s just not going our way. We can come back. We just need to get one win ... and score more than one goal.”

The Cats’ magical season -- No. 1 seed, most goals, President’s Cup for the most regular season points -- will end in a sweep Monday night in Tampa in Game 4 unless the Panthers can find the resolve to still believe. Unless they can find that answer.

And even then they’d need three more wins in a row after that against the two-time reigning NHL Stanley Cup champions.

The historical odds against Florida right now? Parents, cover the children’s eyes. Please don’t let them see this.

There have been 201 instances in NHL history of a team being down 3-0 in the playoffs:

And only four times has the trailing team then won four in a row to win the series. That’s 2 percent. Or 1.99, to be precise. It has happened only twice since 1975, last by the Los Angeles Kings over the San Jose Sharks in the 2014 first round.

“It looks bleak,” admitted coach Andrew Brunette. “Hopefully we can find some energy. It’s more frustration than joy right now. We’re losing a little bit of our resilience. That frustration has has taken over passion.

Florida has made some history this postseason, with the club’s first playoff series win since 1996.

It will take an historic rally now by the Comeback Cats to win another one and save the season.

Tampa led 1-0 13:21 into the first period Sunday on Corey Perry’s goal, but Florida countered three minutes later on Sam Reinhart’s power-play score -- after the Cats been 0-for-25, Oh-for-the-playoffs -- with a man advantage.

But the Lightning poured in a pair of goals in the second period on shots by Erik Cernak and Steven Stamkos.

Florida missed or was denied on a handful of glorious chances as Andrei Vasilevskiy outdueld Sergei Bobrovsky at the net.

The Panthers had pulled Bobrovsky in a last desperate attempt when Tampa scored its fourth and fifth goals with less than four minutes left.

The Cats were counting on a win Sunday to turn things around.

“Get it to 2-1 [in the series] and then it’s ‘go’ time,” Aaron Ekblad had said. “We know how to battle back.”

A bunch of the Panthers all got haircuts during the two-day break between games.

“It’s just one of those things,” said Ekblad. “You change little things, and sometimes it gives you a spark.”

Nothing worked for Florida. Not even the barber did.

“We win [Game 3] and everything changes. If you win one, everything changes,” coach Andrew Brunette had said Saturday.

The Cats also hoped breaking the power-play drought would do something.

“Obviously we’re in a funk,” Brunette had said. “We got a couple of diffrerent combinations to look at. Just gotta find something that clicks. Keep banging on the door to open it.”

Nothing opened. Nothing worked.

Florida needed a similar huge performance as the Miami Heat enjoyed in Boston a night earlier.

It wasn’t there.

Tampa’s defensive tactic of clogging the middle ice before their net has worked stupendously. Florida averaged a league-leading 4.11 goals during the season. In the postseason it has been 2.44, a huge dropoff. And the Cats have scored but one goal in all three losses to the Lightning.

“Just get one,” said Reinhart of the mantra now.

It is the only hope left.

Brunette again lamented a lack of “will” in his team -- as if the difference in this series was rooted in effort or mindset.

“They’re willing themselves,” he said of the Lightning. “They have more will and desire than we do. We need to find a way to dial it in deeper and harder and want it more. Get a little more will, a little more desperation in our game.”

While the Panthers continue to search for what’s missing with hardly any time left -- and Brunette continues thinking intangibles are the difference and the solution -- the answer in this series seems more and more clear.

Tampa Bay is just better.