Tonight, the Florida Panthers have a chance to accomplish something they have not been able to pull off since 1996. The last time the Cats won a playoff series, most of the Panthers current roster ranged in age from one to three years old. As a matter of fact, seven current players were not even born yet at the time of the last playoff series win for the Panthers. That makes tonight’s game against the Washington Capitals even more important. Because for the majority of these players, it is literally the opportunity of a lifetime.
This is a position the Panthers do not often find themselves in. This core of players has no NHL experience when it comes to closing out an opponent in a playoff series, and certainly not on the road. That’s why some of the veteran additions have and will continue to prove worthwhile. Patric Hornqvist, Joe Thornton, Radko Gudas, Noel Acciari, Ben Chiarot, Claude Giroux, and early Conn Smythe favorite, Carter Verhaeghe to name a few, all have experience in this exact scenario. This type of experience will prove vital to the Panthers as they attempt to move on for the first time in over 20 years. Make no mistake, the Capitals have been here more times than most. They are a veteran, cup-winning team, and they have been here several times before. There will be no panic from Alex Ovechkin or any of his long-time veteran running mates.
Closing out a playoff series on the road is considered on of the hardest tasks to do in sports. When the team across from you is desperate and literally playing for the life of their season, they will do just about anything to win that game. As the Carolina Huricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs showed us last night, it is a daunting task to get that “nail in the coffin” win in the opposing team’s building. The Caps have multiple Hall of Fame players on their roster and will not go quietly. No one wants to see them in a Game Seven. So tonight is as much of a must-win as the Panthers have had since 1996. This is a moment not promised to come around again. They have a chance to break a 26 year curse and propel this franchise to the second round and hopefully beyond.
What to expect
I could sit here and go over all the tiny details and highlight players. I could go in depth about the Capitals 1-3-1 and 1-2-2 neutral zone traps and dissect the Panthers power play and their lack of success. I could talk about key injuries, the goalies, the lines, and everything in between. But so often in clinching games, those things don’t matter as much as the raw effort on the ice. It usually comes down to board battles, rebounds. greasy goals, and the discipline to avoid the after whistle nonsense and stay out the box. The Panthers need to be ready for a playoff game where every mistake is magnified and every ounce of effort is needed. There can be no 3-0 hole in this one because another comeback is hard to imagine in this scenario.
From what I’ve seen, this team is ready for whatever adversity comes their way. In this series alone, they have trailed the series twice, given up the first goal in all but one game, been on the wrong end of major referee and Department of Player Safety errors, and even trailed the pivotal Game Five by three goals halfway through. They had to survive at the death of Game Four to force overtime. And they have lost Mason Marchment along the way. Through all of this, they have not flinched. Tonight is a new test for many of the names on the most talented roster in Panthers history, but it is a welcome challenge and I cannot wait to see what they bring to the table when they take the ice in Washington D.C.
Tonight could be the night! 26 years in the making, the Panthers may finally be ready to advance beyond the first round of the NHL Playoffs. I have cautious optimism, but as I’ve said all year, this team feels different. If you’re not excited yet, you should be. The nerves will set in as the clock ticks closer to puck drop. Buckle up.
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