Fans of the Florida Panthers are well-aware of the franchise’s struggles in the post-season. Since their first season in 1993-94, the Panthers have won three Stanley Cup playoff series – and they both came within the same year (1994-95 when they made it to the Cup Final before being swept by the Colorado Avalanche).
Since that time, it’s been one disappointment after another for Florida. In six of the past nine seasons, the Panthers haven’t even made the playoffs. But in this year and the year prior, it has been easier to forget about the failures because Florida has been a regular-season force to contend with. Many, if not most of the elite players the Panthers have accumulated in the NHL entry draft are in their prime now. They went out and spent $10 million on the unrestricted free agent market to assure themselves of good goaltending. This post-season was supposed to be the coming-out-as-true-Cup-frontrunners year for them.
Thus far, though, they’ve looked like pretenders to the throne. In their first-round series against the Washington Capitals, the Panthers took it on the chin in Game 1, losing 4-2 to the Caps. Florida avoided a two-game deficit Thursday in Game 2, beating Washington 5-1. But Saturday night in D.C., the Capitals re-established the series lead with a 6-1 victory. Now, in a best-of-five series, the Panthers find themselves trailing Washington 2-1, with another Caps home game scheduled for Monday. It is entirely possible Florida heads home for a midweek Game 5 on the verge of being eliminated by the Capitals.
This would be an enormous upset – the Eastern Conference-champion, second-best team in the league, losing to the East’s eighth-best playoff team. Yes, you absolutely have to give credit to the veteran Caps for finding a new gear than the mostly-mediocre level they played at for much of the second half of the season. But just about any analysis that was made about this series rightfully noted that, on paper, Florida was as good as, or better than Washington in any area of the game.
That hasn’t been true on the ice through three games. It shouldn’t have to be this hard for the Panthers to oust the Capitals. There is something to be said for the playoff experience Washington has. But sooner than later, any young core, including the Panthers’, is going to have to take that next competitive step, before angst-ridden coaches and owners change the core.
We’re not quite there yet for Florida. There’s still time to assert themselves as a genuine threat. There’s still time for $10-million-per-season goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (3.03 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) to deliver on a high-stakes stage. There’s still time for stars Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov, Claude Girioux and Aaron Ekblad to be difference-makers. There’s still time for their defense to put the squeeze on Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Washington’s offensive menaces.
But the hourglass of the playoffs can run out on you in a hurry. The Panthers are now on Gut-Check Time. Two more losses, and they’ll once again be in a very bad place. People can talk about the pressure a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs face in this post-season, but there are different pressures for different teams, and at the moment, the pressure has been ratcheted up to levels they probably believed wouldn’t be a problem if they were in a conference or Cup final.
They aren’t, though. They’re closer to going home for the summer than they are to moving on and facing the winner of the Leafs/Tampa Bay Lightning. With due respect to the Capitals, the Panthers should be better than this.