The Cardiac Cats got their hearts ripped out - and to make matters worse, it was at the hands of the arch-rival Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Florida Panthers entered the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Presidents' Trophy winners and a serious contender to win the franchise's first-ever championship. But the post-season proved to be a different beast and after facing a stiffer-than-expected test from Washington in the first round, the Panthers shriveled against the Lightning. So what happened?
The most obvious answer is 'Andrei Vasilevskiy.' Tampa Bay's superstar goaltender reminded everyone what he is capable of by stoning the Panthers time and again after a mostly pedestrian first-round performance against Toronto (but of course Vasilevskiy saved the best for last in icing the Maple Leafs in Game 7).
Thanks to his 49 saves in the 2-0 victory last night, Vasilevskiy now owns the NHL record for series-clinching shutouts with six, passing Chris Osgood and Clint Benedict. He was stopping everything against the Panthers and it was not from lack of effort on Florida's part.
Having said that, the Panthers had the best offense in the NHL coming into the playoffs and scoring three goals in a four-game series is simply unacceptable - especially when you have the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov in your lineup. Tampa Bay's strategy of bogging down the Cats in the neutral zone clearly worked, as Florida wasn't able to create off the rush the way they typically had during the regular season. Chalk that one up to a veteran Lightning coaching staff led by Jon Cooper and buy-in from the players. The Panthers needed to make adjustments in this series and unfortunately for them, the losses piled up too quickly to learn that lesson.
There was also the Florida power play, which seemingly went on vacation in the playoffs, producing just one goal in 31 attempts over the course of 10 games. Now, again, you have to give credit to Tampa Bay's penalty-killers for blocking shots, getting into lanes and generally making life miserable for Florida's power play, but at the end of the day you need to get results. Falling flat with the man advantage against both Washington and Tampa Bay portends a problem.
Cruelly enough, the Panthers could learn a lot from their in-state cousins. If you want to go deep in the playoffs, if you want to win it all, you have to sacrifice. The Bolts threw their bodies all over the ice in this series, knowing that bruises heal and hoping that none of the important bones get broken. More of that from Florida may have helped their cause.
But it's all done now for the Cats. And while a loss to the defending back-to-back champions is both understandable and disappointing, Florida must move on.
The difficult part now will be running it all back next year. Once again, the Panthers will likely have to go through two other top Eastern teams just to get out of the division (Tampa and Toronto) and Florida will have to do so under a tight cap situation.
As it stands now, the Panthers only have around $4 million to play with over the summer and a number of spots to fill. Well-deserved contract extensions to Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe kick in next season, eating up some dollars, while Sergei Bobrovsky's $10 million stipend looms large as always.
On one side of the ledger, it's next to impossible to picture deadline acquisition and pending UFA Claude Giroux sticking around, while fellow newbie and UFA Ben Chiarot failed to improve the blueline in his short time in Sunrise. Noel Acciari and Mason Marchment also need new deals, so something's gotta give.
If there's one positive to Florida's situation it's that center Anton Lundell had a very strong rookie campaign and with continued growth (i.e. avoiding the dreaded 'sophomore slump'), Baby Barkov would bring tremendous value to the Panthers while still playing on an entry-level deal.
There will have to be further subtractions, however, and that's where GM Bill Zito will earn his keep.
Right now it must hurt for Florida fans, who rode a very fun ride during the regular season and still have a strong team to cheer for in the future. But the Cats need to learn from this series if they want to go further next season.